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A Short History of Film, Second Edition

Saturday, October 6th, 2012

A Short History of Film

Second Edition

Wheeler Winston Dixon and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

Rutgers University Press

A history of world cinema that makes its past as vibrant as its present—now revised and updated through 2012.

Praise for the previous edition:

“This is the film history book we’ve been waiting for.” —David Sterritt, Chairman, National Society of Film Critics

“Highly recommended for all collections.” —Library Journal (starred review)

The second edition of A Short History of film provides a concise and accurate overview of the history of world cinema, detailing the major movements, directors, studios, and genres from 1896 through 2012. Accompanied by more than 250 rare color and black and white stills—including photographs of some of the industry’s most recent films—the new edition is unmatched in its panoramic view of the medium as it is practiced in the United States and around the world as well as its sense of cinema’s sweep in the 20th and early 21st centuries.

Wheeler Winston Dixon and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster present new and amended coverage of film in general as well as the birth and death dates and final works of notable directors. Their expanded focus on key films brings the book firmly into the digital era and chronicles the death of film as a production medium.

The book takes readers through the invention of the kinetoscope, the introduction of sound and color between the two world wars, and ultimately the computer generated imagery of the present day. It details significant periods in world cinema, including the early major industries in Europe, the dominance of the Hollywood studio system in the 1930s and 1940s, and the French New Wave of the 1960s.

Attention is given to small independent efforts in developing nations and the more personal independent film movement that briefly flourished in the United States, the significant filmmakers of all nations, and the effects of censorship and regulation on production everywhere. In addition, the authors incorporate the stories of women and other minority filmmakers who have often been overlooked in other texts.

Engaging and accessible, this is the best one-stop source for the history of world film available for students, teachers, and general audiences alike.

WHEELER WINSTON DIXON is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. His many books include Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood, 21st-Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster), A History of Horror, and Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (all Rutgers University Press).

GWENDOLYN AUDREY FOSTER is a professor of film studies in the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and with Wheeler Winston Dixon, Editor in Chief of Quarterly Review of Film and Video. Her many books include 21st-Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-authored with Wheeler Winston Dixon) and Class-Passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture.

Second edition available in paper, hardcover and Kindle March, 2013 from Rutgers University Press.

Capitalism Eats Itself: Gluttony and Coprophagia from Hoarders to La Grande Bouffe

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

You really are what you eat.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new article in the journal Film International, entitled “Capitalism Eats Itself: Gluttony and Coprophagia from Hoarders to La Grande Bouffe,” which examines a number of television programs and films that deal with excess consumption and wastage, seemingly a more and more popular topic in contemporary throwaway culture. Here’s the opening paragraphs:

“Consumption. Excess. Gluttony. Hoarding. Waste. Massive debt. The pathologies of capitalism are our greatest export. Endless examples of unproductive expenditure only add to our credibility as gluttons with little or no use-value. Americans consume recklessly in order to convince ourselves that we are not alienated, and that late-stage capitalism will provide for us, and fulfill our emotional needs. TV and media reflect and take part in insatiable hoarding, gluttonous consumption, and excessive production and dissemination of images that reify the very same pathologies and deadly sins they purport to expose – in a cyclical loop that I call ‘capitalism eating itself.’

The US has a long history of excessive gluttony and hoarding, starting with people, as one prime example. Human beings, slaves were hoarded and gluttonously exchanged for their value in capital and manufacture of products. Our historical pathology of gluttony is easily demonstrated by our origins; we are a stolen nation; a huge gobbled up land mass birthed from colonial theft, gluttony, and hoarding. America’s bloody legacy of greed, theft, and violence is one we obsessively and compulsively deny. By replacing our primal beginnings with a narrative of so-called patriotic struggle for freedom, we deny, (like hoarders deny their compulsions), our long complex history of thievery of capital, bodies, countries, vast amounts of land, commodities and wealth.”

You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Embracing The Apocalypse: A World Without People

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay in the latest issue of Film International, “Embracing the Apocalypse: A World Without People,” examining visions of the future as imagined by various Dystopian films and television programs.

As she writes, “Human-centered popular folktales of Apocalypse and Doomsday narratives of every imaginable scenario are undeniably as powerful and plentiful as they have been from the beginnings of human narrative tradition. Indeed, apocalyptic events permeate a plethora of grand narratives from myriad cultures and textual sources that prominently, almost ecstatically, feature and carefully describe the gory details of our violent end times. They are set in the future, and almost all revolve around human-centered stories complete with often similarly violent narratives, inevitable tropes of conflict, judgment, drama, and resolution, the stops we require of any genre or tradition in human narrative form.

At the center of apocalyptic vision we find, perhaps predictably, a human-dominant form of speciesism, revealing a widespread, almost universally held belief in the dominance of human beings as a species. Human beings are placed at the center of events and narratives, even narratives that don’t involve human beings. This is something that often goes unnoticed, but it is especially notable in apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and depeopled futuristic visions.

The plethora of doomsday scenarios and apocalyptic narratives are far too numerous to list, from religious scripture and Revelations, to secular visions of end times, to the myriad, often bizarre and insane sounding predictions of the end by various individuals and groups. All are narratives of human-centered destruction; some invoke the end of the earth, and some portray the end of people and human civilization; but all embrace, and seem to enjoy visions of the end. We cannot agree on much, but people agree that the end is near, the end is coming, and the end is usually defined as the end of people and human civilization.”

You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above; fascinating work in an area that is largely unexplored.

Subverting Capitalism and Blind Faith: Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs

Monday, August 20th, 2012

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a fascinating piece on Pascal Laugier’s controversial film Martyrs (2008) in the current issue of Film International. Here’s the opening paragraph:

“It’s not a likable movie. Even me, myself, I hate the film.” (Pascal Laugier)

Pascal Laugier’s radically experimental horror film Martyrs (2008) is a persuasive and explosive leveling of capitalism, which is not limited to materialism, the Catholic Church, the cynical genre of torture porn, and the widespread embrace of anti-humanist postmodern irony. Martyrs joins the work of Pasolini, Bava, Bataille and other confrontational artists, including Luis Buñuel. Specifically, Martyrs recalls the eye-slitting scene in Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou. It directly assaults viewers with both detestable visuals and agonizing sounds of pain, in an almost unbearable filmic experience of terror that rouses the even the most cynical viewer from her/his postmodern stance of superiority. Martyrs makes the viewer responsible for the reinforcement of institutionalized capitalism, particularly religion, and more specifically religion’s obsessive embrace of death, its insistence on afterlife, its abuse of women, and its concomitant obsession with martyrdom. It is also a critique of the consumer of the horror film and an astounding film in and of itself.”

You can read the rest of this excellent essay by clicking here.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on “A Man Escaped”

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

In issue 62 of Senses of Cinema, Gwendolyn Audrey Foster offers a compelling essay on Robert Bresson’s brilliant drama of survival in prison, A Man Escaped, noting that; “For Bresson, the images are everything, along with the unerring precision with which they are edited together to create a world that is hermetically sealed, and unsparingly distanced from the viewer. As always, Bresson’s camera movement is a model of economy and precision; in many instances, the camera lingers on an image for what seems an eternity, to accentuate the tedium and endless waiting of prison life. But what is perhaps most striking about A Man Escaped is that it manages to create an atmosphere of almost unbearable suspense despite the fact that the title gives the basic narrative arc of the film away; the title character of the film does indeed escape his imprisonment, but the means by which he accomplishes this are tortuous indeed.

Based on the memoirs of André Devigny, who escaped from Fort Montlucin Lyonin 1943, during World War II, A Man Escaped tells the story of Fontaine (François Leterrier), a member of the French Resistance who is imprisoned by the Nazis in Montluc prison after an unsuccessful escape attempt. The prison is a forbidding, inhuman structure; indeed, the opening shot of the film shows us a plaque memorialising the 7000 men who died within the prison’s walls during the war. Thus, the basic situation of the film is set up from the outset; for the next 99 minutes, we will be witnesses – in every sense of the word – to one man’s fight for survival against almost insurmountable odds. Fontaine is thrown into a prison cell, and almost immediately begins to strategise an escape plan, despite the enormous risks involved.  His plans are deliberate and methodical, but the risks are enormous.

Another prisoner, Orsini (Jacques Ertaud) tries his own escape attempt but fails, and the consequences are severe; a brutal beating and a death sentence. Despite the tedium and monotony of prison life, Fontaine continues in his methodical preparations for escape, only to be told at the last minute that he has been sentenced to death for his Resistance activities. Returned to his cell, Fontaine discovers he has a new companion, François Jost (Charles Le Clainche) a 16-year-old soldier who is supposedly sympathetic to the Nazis. Now Fontaine has a new problem; his escape is nearly imminent, and he has to decide whether to take Jost with him, or to kill him. At length, and after much deliberation, Fontaine decides to trust Jost with the details of his plan. The film ends with their successful escape over the rooftop of the prison, and the two men slip away silently into the night, as A Man Escaped comes to its predestined conclusion.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here, or at the image at the top of this page.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

Born to Kill (1947)

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Albert Arnett: “It’s quite all right, Mrs. Brent. I am a man of integrity, but I’m always willing to listen to an interesting offer.”
Helen Brent: “Well, I’m prepared to pay handsomely.”
Albert Arnett: “Good. Obstructing the wheels of justice is a costly affair.”
Helen Brent: “Five thousand dollars should do it.”
Albert Arnett: “Fifteen thousand dollars should do it.”

Robert Wise’s Born to Kill (1947), starring Lawrence Tierney, Elisha Cook Jr. and Claire Trevor is one of the most perverse of all 1940s noirs; Tierney stars as Sam Wild, a sociopath who thinks nothing of killing anyone who causes him even the slightest annoyance. Fleeing town after another senseless killing, he picks up Helen Brent (Trevor) on a train to San Francisco, and despite their differences in social class (an important point in the film), the two form an unholy alliance to claw their way to fame and fortune, using and discarding people at whim. Sam quickly realizes that Helen is “slumming,” and immediately calls her on it:

Sam Wild: “Oh, I see. You cross the tracks on May Day with a basket of goodies for the poor slum kid, but back you scoot – and fast – to your own neck o’ the woods. Don’t you?”
Helen Brent: “I wouldn’t say that.”
Sam Wild: “No, you wouldn’t ’say’ it… but that’s the way it is.”

On their trail is Albert Arnett (Walter Slezak), who, upon confronting Helen about Sam’s homicidal activities, dryly observes that “I remind you that Nevada courts have rather puritanical views. Why, some of our more impassioned juries even insist that a man who commits murder pay with his life.” And yet Arnett is just as crooked as Sam and Helen; his silence can be obtained, for a price.

Tierney’s sidekick, Mart (Cook Jr.), has a rather peculiar arrangement with Sam, functioning not only as an enabler in Sam’s schemes, but also as an oddly “spousal” figure, lending cash, arranging cover-ups and alibis, and scaring off witnesses to Sam’s numerous transgressions. As directed by Wise with ferocious intensity (it’s really hard to square this film with The Sound of Music [1965], much later in Wise’s career), Born to Kill is one of the most brutal and unyielding films ever made, of which the title says all; Sam Wild is “born to kill.” Or, as Sam bluntly puts it, “I’ve got a dame on my mind – and she’s dead. That’s plenty for me.”

Here’s an excellent essay on Born to Kill by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster.

The Women in High Noon (1952)

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

Kathy Jurado, Grace Kelly and Gary Cooper on the set of High Noon

High Noon (1952) is an iconic Western; it enraged John Wayne, who thought it Communist propaganda, but it’s really nothing of the sort. It’s also a deeply ironic comment, in view of the fact that Cooper had testified before the HUAC on October 23, 1947, as a friendly witness, condemning supposed Communist influence in Hollywood.

It’s very, very bleak morality tale, in which small town Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) discovers, to his shock and dismay, that when convict Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) gets out of prison and comes gunning for him, no one — absolutely no one — will come to his aid.

What makes the film all the more depressing is that it starts out with a wedding — Kane marries Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly), a Quaker, and plans to leave the town and start a new life working the land, removed from guns and violence. All Kane’s “friends” gather round at the wedding: the town’s mayor, Jonas Henderson (Thomas Mitchell), the judge Percy Mettrick (Otto Kruger, reliably despicable as always), Sam Fuller (Harry Morgan) the town’s retired Marshal, Martin Howe (Lon Chaney), and when word arrives that Frank Miller is on his way, all desert him. Their only advice; get out of town, fast, but Kane realizes that if he did that, he’d simply be running from Frank Miller for the rest of his life.

Complicating matters further are Kane’s former lover, saloon owner Helen Ramírez (Katy Jurado), who has also had an affair with Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges), the Deputy Marshal, who covets both Kane’s job, and his past relationship with Helen. Amy, meanwhile, tells Kane she will leave him if he engages in gunplay with Frank Miller. As the clock ticks inexorably towards High Noon, and Kane’s options run out, it seems that there is nothing to do but face up to Frank Miller, even though Kane will likely be outdrawn.

What is interesting here to me is that the women are arguably the central figures in the film, rather than the men, although Gary Cooper’s performance won him the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1952. (The film also got, and deserved, the Oscar for Best Film Editing, to Elmo Williams and Harry W. Gerstad, for what amounted to a miraculous “save” job in the cutting room, but that’s another story; it also won Best Song – “High Noon [Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin']” by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington, and Best Score for Tiomkin; Fred Zinnemann was nominated, but did not win, for Best Director; the film was also nominated, but didn’t win, for Best Picture [Stanley Kramer] and Best Screenplay [Carl Foreman]).

Katy Jurado brings to her portrayal of Helen Ramírez a dignity that’s missing from most 1950s portrayals of Latina women; she’s a figure of power, integrity, decisiveness, and a shrewd judge of character. As Amy, Grace Kelly seems overwhelmed by the turn of events that thrusts her newly wed husband back into the arena of violence, but in the end, as Brecht always advised, realizes that “only violence helps where violence rules,” and takes an active hand in ending Frank Miller’s reign of terror.

It’s really these two women, and the way they deal with the situation given to them, that informs the internal structure of the film. The townspeople simply cower; Kane tries to get help, but can’t; and for most of the film, Zinnemann keeps cutting back to the town’s lonely train station, where Frank Miller’s sidekicks wait for him to arrive on the noon train. So their roles are somewhat predestined by the narrative structure of the film; for Helen and Amy, the matter requires more thought, and how they react is crucial to the resolution of the film’s narrative.

What John Wayne — and others — probably objected to more than anything else was the film’s conclusion, when Kane throws his badge in the dirt after, against all odds, and with the help of his pacifist wife, Amy, he manages to defeat Frank and his gang. Heroes just don’t do that.

As director Howard Hawks told an interviewer much later, “I made Rio Bravo because I didn’t like High Noon. Neither did Duke [John Wayne]. I didn’t think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help. And who saves him? His Quaker wife. That isn’t my idea of a good Western.” But in Kane’s case, he can’t forgive the town for folding up on him when he needed them most; these people were supposed to be his friends.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster wrote an interesting essay on this often-neglected side of the film, “The Women in High Noon (1952): A Metanarrative of Difference,” in the book The Films of Fred Zinnemann: Critical Perspectives, edited by Arthur Nolletti (SUNY UP, 1999). Definitely worth seeking out, and reading.

The Dalton Girls

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

Lisa Davis as Rose Dalton in The Dalton Girls

The Dalton Girls (1957) is a feminist western directed by Reginald LeBorg, which follows the adventures of Holly, Rose, Columbine and Marigold Dalton as they go on a crime rampage in the old west following the violent deaths of their brothers, members of the infamous Dalton Gang. When they visit Mr. Slidell (Glenn Davis), the mortician who is preparing the bodies of their brothers for burial, Slidell attempts to force himself on Holly, who kills him with a shovel in self-defense.

Just like Thelma and Louise (1991), the women are now on the run, and soon learn that no one will cut them an even break because of their past. They resolve to lead a life of crime, starting out with a stagecoach robbery, moving on to banks, poker games, and other potentially lucrative targets. Director LeBorg keeps things moving at a rapid clip, and the performances by Merry Anders, Lisa Davis, Penny Edwards and Sue George are all surprisingly convincing and sympathetic. Shot location near Kanab, Utah, the film is sparse, brutal and unforgiving.

What strikes one the most about The Dalton Girls is the speed and brutality of the narrative; it’s over in 71 minutes, and instead of being centered on a group of outlaw men, the Dalton women make their plight seem like a calling — ridding themselves of the patriarchy. As Rose Dalton observes of one of their “gentlemen admirers,” “Oh, honey, don’t think about him. They tell me he plays women just like he plays poker. Riffle, shuffle, fast cut, big deal, the sky’s the limit; and then all of a sudden you’re lying there in the discard.”

As Hal Erickson notes, “After all the members of the notorious Dalton outlaw gang have been killed or arrested, their sisters decide to pick up where the boys left off. Led by Holly Dalton (Merry Anders), who since killing a man in self-defense has been outside the law, the girls terrorize Colorado territory with their criminal raids. The other members of the gang are Rose, Columbine and Marigold Dalton, played by Lisa Davis, Penny Edwards, Sue George. In true Hollywood Chauvinist fashion, the Dalton girls are trailed by a bunch of matrimony-minded men; refreshingly, however, the ladies remain true to their heritage to the last.”

The film is also, despite its somewhat compromised origins, absolutely serious. The best essay on the film is Gwendolyn Foster’s “Crossdressing and Disruptions of Identity in The Dalton Girls,” in Film Criticism 20.3  (Spring 1996): 24-33, which was reprinted in her book Captive Bodies: Postcolonial Subjectivity in the Cinema (SUNY UP, 1999). The Dalton Girls is scheduled to be released to DVD a part of the MGM Classics Collection in late September 2011; another interesting film that finally makes it to DVD.

Here’s a clip.

Women Filmmakers and Directors by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

Saturday, September 10th, 2011

Here’s a concise essay on the history of women directors in the cinema by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster.

You can click this link, or read the complete essay on this page.

“The history of women filmmakers is a rich and fertile body of knowledge that has been largely ignored, until recently, by mainstream film historians. Nevertheless, women were very much involved in the creation of the visual art form known as motion pictures from its beginnings until the present. In fact, women were at one time far more prominent in film production circles than they are now. In the early days of film, women such as Alice Guy, Gene Gauntier, Hanna Henning, Ida May Park, Olga Preobrazhenskaya, Nell Shipman, Ruth Stonehouse, Lucille McVey Drew, Elvira Notari, Lois Weber, Dorothy Arzner, Germaine Dulac, Marie Epstein, Grace Cunard, and many others were involved in creating the new visual format. Unfortunately, when the first surveys of film history were written, and when the first pantheons of directors and major players were drawn up, most of the accomplishments of women directors, producers, and scenarists were overlooked. Even feminists tended to believe that there simply were no women involved in the production end of early films; women were viewed as objects of a voyeuristic “male gaze,” in films that were supposedly all directed and created by men.

Women were written out of history as active participants in the production and creation of film, film movements, special effects, the star system, the studio system, independent and experimental forms, and genres. It seems as if historians were primarily interested in women in front of the camera as actors and sex objects. Creative women, however, were very much participants in the history of filmmaking. For example, Alice Guy, a French woman director, is generally credited as having directed the first “narrative” film. Her film, La Fée aux choux (1896), is in many ways a film like that of her male contemporaries; it tells the story of a fairy tale in which a woman who cannot bear children creates them in a cabbage patch. Guy was instrumental in the development of such early pioneering techniques as special effects (masking, superimposition, and other in-camera effects). She was also very much a pioneer of the very first genre vehicles, yet Alice Guy is rarely cited as the originator of these genres. The hundreds of films she directed include everything from melodramas to gangster films, horror films, fairy tales, and even short music films featuring famous opera singers—forerunners to today’s music videos.

It is hard to overestimate the talented contributions of this pioneering woman director who worked in early primitive color techniques such as handed painting and stamping and also created some of the first examples of sound films, recorded on wax cylinders. And Alice Guy was not by any means the only woman producer/writer/director to contribute to the development of the film form. Internationally, many other women, most of whom are barely remembered today, were also prominent in silent-film production. For example, in Australia, the McDonagh sisters (Paulette, Phyllis, and Isobel) taught themselves filmmaking from the vantage point of actresses. Their early films were only recently “rediscovered” and written back into Australian film history. Hanna Henning, a German director who made many silent films, awaits rediscovery, as does Ida May Park, an American director who made scores of films in the silent-film period. The years have been a bit kinder to Lois Weber, Cleo Madison, Dorothy Davenport Reid, and Dorothy Arzner, all of whom have had their films survive and who have been rediscovered and celebrated in film festivals and archival retrospectives such as those at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the American Museum of the Moving Picture in Astoria.

Women directors thrived during a short period in the beginning of filmmaking production, especially in the teens and early 1920s. In this period, before film directing was seen as primarily a “masculine” occupation, women directors were numerous and busy. This period is well covered by Anthony Slide in his book, Early Women Directors. So many women were active in film production: Julia Crawford Ivers, Nell Shipman, Ruth Stonehouse, Lottie Lyell, Musidora, Margery Wilson, and many others. Many women were employed at the Universal Studios, where Carl Laemmle was not averse to hiring women as directors. Women were also highly active in this period as screenwriters.

Many women directors of color worked outside the studio system as independent producer/directors. African American women directors such as Eloice Gist and Zora Neale Hurston developed and introduced the independent personal film. Gist was a preacher who wrote, produced, directed, and self-distributed her own films; she lectured with them as she went from town to town, speaking with films such as her Hellbound Train, which depicted the narratives of figures bound for hell because of various moral trespasses. Zora Neale Hurston, as many now know, pioneered the ethnographic film that featured the insider informant. Hurston’s films were ahead of their time in that she understood the value of herself as an insider informant in the stories she told about the African American community.

Beyond the United States, women were instrumental in pioneering schools of film. Women such as French filmmakers Germaine Dulac and Marie Epstein were groundbreakers in the experimentation with film. Dulac is now finally hailed as one of the champions of the experimental French film. She was loosely associated with the Surrealists, the Impressionists, and the poetic realists. Her films are currently championed and lionized as part of a canon of important experimental films that challenged the borders of poetic filmic expression. Epstein is also being reconfigured into the landscape of film history. Her pioneering and mastery of poetic realism, combined with her narrative techniques, are finally being included in film history.

Agnès Varda, the Belgian woman director who helped pioneer the New Wave, is also finally being credited for her contribution to the development of the new school of filmmaking previously only attributed to directors such as François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and other male directors. In Italy, as Giuliana Bruno uncovered, the early silent filmmaker Elvira Notari was already beginning to embrace the artistic precepts behind Neorealism, a school of film that arose in Italy many years after her death.

By the 1930s there were fewer and fewer women directors. Film was beginning to be viewed as an art form and as a powerful medium in the marketplace. Many women directors left the field when it was clear that society no longer approved of women working in such a high-profile job that clearly indicated power in the public sphere. Among the exceptions were German director Leni Riefenstahl, who is universally credited with pioneering the documentary form and the technique of propaganda. Dorothy Arzner, a lesbian filmmaker, was one of the few prominent women directors in the 1930s. Mary Field is credited with pioneering the British nature film at about this time. Mary Ellen Bute was one of the pioneers of the experimental film in the United States. Her use of oscillated light to form patterns choreographed to music was far ahead of its time.

The 1940s were a fertile time for experimental women filmmakers. In this era, Maya Deren and Marie Menken introduced many of the ideas and forms of experimental avant-garde cinema. In Britain, Joy Batchelor created animated films. In France, Jacqueline Audry directed glossy studio-produced films. In the Soviet Union, Wanda Jakubowska pioneered many of the Soviet ideals of the social document film. In Mexico, Matilde Landeta fought to direct her own productions after having served as an assistant director for many, many years. She managed to direct a few of her own projects despite the sexism of the industry.

In the 1950s, Ida Lupino claimed that she did her work simply because there was no one else available, but the passion of her efforts belies such modesty. She tackled controversial subject matter and invented many of the techniques and themes associated with film noir. In the 1960s many women directed personal experimental films. Mai Zetterling, for example, began as an actress, but soon tired of working within the confines of a male-dominated system, and created her own visions of the world. Sara Aldrege was another important innovator in experimental film. One of the greatest of the experimental directors of the 1960s, Carolee Schneemann deals with issues of sexuality, power, and gender, as does Barbara Hammer, who began working as a director in the early 1970s. The multiplicity of visions among women directors is startling; it forces us to look at ourselves as women, and as members of society, in a series of entirely new and enlightening ways.

In the 1970s, 1980s, and the 1990s, there has been an international rise in the number of women filmmakers, both independent and studio directors. Women have been prominent as filmmakers in both developed and developing countries. Despite the rise in the number of women filmmakers, the auteur film director continues to be thought of as male. Despite women’s contributions to the development of the art form and many of its pivotal movements (from Surrealism to New Wave to documentary and the personal film), women filmmakers continue to be marginalized in dominant discourse. Women filmmakers, through their exclusion from history books, have been denied a sisterhood. Each generation of women filmmakers stands apart from its earlier predecessors. Remedying the paucity of scholarship on women directors is compounded by an unavailability of many of the films made by women in the early days of cinema, many of which have been lost, neglected, or destroyed. Film scholars have produced a remarkably persuasive body of film criticism that begins the belated recognition process of women film directors and their achievements.

Despite a clear lineage, women filmmakers have managed to be influenced by one another, even if they have been marginalized or excluded from film scholarship. Barbara Hammer and several women directors credit, for example, the work of Maya Deren, whose experimental films were profoundly personal and expressed a female camera-eye. Diana Barrie claims she was most influenced by Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon. Alice Guy was a mentor and influence on Lois Weber, who followed in her footsteps to produce, write, and direct her own material. Weber, in turn, had a profound effect upon the career of Dorothy Arzner, who had a successful directorial career within the confines of the studio system of Hollywood in the 1930s.

Dorothy Arzner, however, admitted she stifled her criticism of other filmmaker’s studio projects. As the only woman director in the studio system, she felt she “ought not complain,” and yet she carefully maintained that no obstacles were put in her way by men in the business. Elinor Glyn, the famous author and early filmmaker, seemingly did not recognize the clearly sexist critical lambasting she received for her adroit and sharply observed comedy, Knowing Men. Ida May Park, another woman among many who directed in the 1920s, refused her first job directing, thinking it an unfeminine job. Even contemporary women directors find the notion of a feminist approach to filmmaking incompatible with their need for acceptance in the industry. The late Shirley Clarke refused invitations to women’s film festivals, even if she agreed that women directors should be recognized. French filmmaker Diane Kurys finds the idea of women’s cinema “negative, dangerous, and reductive,” at the same time claiming, “I am a feminist because I am a woman, I can’t help it.”

Other women directors make absolutely no excuses for their feminism. Carolee Schneemann, Yvonne Rainer, and Barbara Hammer, for example, make films that deal directly and uncompromisingly with issues of sexuality, power, and gender. Donna Deitch was primarily motivated to make Desert Hearts because she saw a lack of films—especially commercial films—that center around a lesbian relationship. Hammer was drawn to experimental formalist filmmaking precisely because it did not seem to be (yet) the exclusive domain of men.

Some women directors wish to make films that employ newly defined heroines or that reverse gender expectations. Sally Potter’s The Gold Diggers is a case in point. Michelle Citron’s Daughter Rite consists of a narrative about two sisters and their mother and ignores the trappings of heroism. Doris Dörrie’s film Men . . . is an attempt to see men as comic gender reversals of the mythic Marilyn Monroe type. Social concerns are also prevalent in the films and voices of women directors. Barbara Kopple’s American Dream covers union battles. Marguerite Duras, a French critic and writer, and Trinh T. Minh-ha, a Vietnamese deconstructionist critic and documentarian, are centrally concerned with deprivileging the screen from its power to distort social reality. Trinh T. Minh-ha questions the ability of the image itself as a historicist account of truth. Clearly then, women directors are often compelled to redefine the boundaries of cinema.

Women directors face a lack of support not only as a result of their gender, but also because they have a remarkable tendency to choose “controversial” or “difficult” subject matter. Shirley Clarke had enormous difficulties funding The Cool World, an early 1960s experimental film (shot in 35mm) about racism and drug dependency. British feature director Muriel Box faced similar difficulties proving herself in a male-dominated industry. Jodie Foster and Penny Marshall stand as proof that some women manage to find funding and support from Hollywood executives, but both have had to use their acting as leverage in the decision-making process.

Racism in Hollywood is a problem only compounded by sexism against women of color. The new African American “wave” of feature filmmaking is predominated by men such as Spike Lee and John Singleton. African American women directors such as Julie Dash, Kathleen Collins, Alile Sharon Larkin, and Barbara McCullough have so far not been offered lucrative package deals by industry executives. Similarly, Asian American women directors have had major difficulties finding funding and distribution. Christine Choy faced enormous interference and lack of support in the production of her film Who Killed Vincent Chin?, a film about violence and racism directed against Asian Americans. Kathleen Collins spent more than a year trying to fund her film Women, Sisters, and Friends.

Julie Dash continues to have to search aggressively for funding, even after the critical success of her Afrocentric Daughters of the Dust. Claire Denis was forced to face humiliation and scorn when attempting to finance her independent feature Chocolat, a film that directly attacks African colonization. Similarly, Ann Hui’s Boat People, a critically successful film that documents the harsh realities of Vietnamese refugees, clearly deserves wider distribution. Distribution and finance remain as formidable barriers that independent filmmakers find themselves up against. An unbelievable amount of hardship seems to have been suffered by women directors, yet an unrivaled degree of perseverance seems to be a common factor in many of their experiences. Early pioneering film director Dorothy Davenport Reid faced the resentment of her male colleagues as she struggled to create her own cinematic visions of the woman’s plight in American society. Yet Reid went on to make a series of intensely personal films that argued against drug addiction, prostitution, and sexism.

Yvonne Rainer managed to fund a film about menopause, Privilege, despite its supposedly taboo subject matter, because of an incredibly loyal following and an intense determination to make the film. For all of these women, the need to make films is a fierce desire they must simply obey, no matter the cost.

Whether working in the industry or making films with the aid of grants and personal financial subsidies, women filmmakers have helped to shape the world of film as it is today. Some women film practitioners see themselves as harbingers of change, instructional forces, barometers of social reintegration; other women see themselves as workers within a tradition that they attempt to subvert from within. The immense contribution made by these women is a legacy that is rich in personal insight, hard work, careful study, and often sacrifice to achieve the aims they held for their creative endeavors.”

Compelling reading! From Alice Guy to Maya Deren to Kathryn Bigelow and all the stops inbetween, women have made immeasurable contributions to the cinema since the dawn of the medium.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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