Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Why aren't there more women directors, Part II

Elaine May's career as a film director may have ended too soon, but she has worked steadily as a playwright and theater director, with occasional film acting and screenwriting jobs. Barbara Loden wasn't so lucky. Born in Marion, North Carolina in 1932, the same year as Elaine May, Loden directed only one feature film, the wildly overlooked "Wanda," and a short that was never released. "Wanda" was well-received on the film festival circuit, but opened, and closed, theatrically, in only one New York theater. It was never released on VHS, and didn't make it to DVD until last year. I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen in 2001, when it was shown as a part of the Austin Film Society's women directors of the 1970s and 1980s series (which also included May's "Mikey & Nicky," Kathryn Bigelow's fantastic vampire western "Near Dark," and a couple of wonderfully trashy B-movies, "Terminal Island" and "Humanoids from the Deep"). I was both frustrated and mesmerized by "Wanda," and it's been buzzing around my head ever since. I plan on seeing it again soon on DVD, but my recollections of the film are from six years ago, so I apologize for any inaccuracies I will probably make. The film is about a housewife in rural Pennsylvania, married to a coal miner, with a child (or two, I don't remember). She leaves one day, becoming a drifter. Eventually she meets up with an inept crook, forming an odd partnership. Then more drifting. In addition to writing and directing the film, Loden plays the title character. It's a frightening, lonely performance. Loden's Wanda resists metaphor, allegory, or any fixed understanding of who she is or where she's going. She could be a void if she wasn't such an exposed nerve. She says very little, allows herself to become attached to people through their efforts, and always keeps moving. Not forward, not backward, just moving. Loden has the courage to play her as an unintelligent, but far from stupid, woman who abandons her family to drift, and keep drifting. No one saves her, and she saves no one. She doesn't figure much out and is not in a better place when the closing credits begin, just a different one. The final scene is devastating, in a very quiet way. If Loden's Wanda were meant to stand for all women, this could be a horror film. But Loden's work is too mysterious, too difficult to trap, figure out, and throw away to be reduced to representational symbology or sociopolitical statement. Tonally and structurally, the film shares some surface similarity with cinema verite documentaries, Italian neo-realism, Monte Hellman's road movies and westerns, Jim Jarmusch's deadpan warm-hearted hipness, John Cassavetes' focus on tonal shifts in body language and behavior and his late-period melancholy, Michelangelo Antonioni's symbiotic relationships between human alienation and geographical landscape, Vincent Gallo's solitary road trip in "The Brown Bunny," and a keen eye for geographical setting that brings to mind such disparate filmmakers as Ross McElwee, early Errol Morris, and Werner Herzog. However, these are superficial observations by a guy who's seen too many movies. Mostly, Loden's film is tonally and structurally a film by Barbara Loden.

So what happened to it? Why was it so shoddily distributed? A couple of anecdotes on Boston University professor Ray Carney's website may provide two likely answers. Carney, or someone writing an email to him, I forget which, mentions a screening of "Wanda" that devolved into an excoriation of the film by radical feminists for failing to provide solutions for women in Wanda's position. Neoliberal political correctness in higher education, good intentions aside, has become an anti-art, anti-life fascist whinefest of stupidity that has no place for any artwork that doesn't flatter the prevailing winds of academic fashion. "Wanda" is too hard to pin down, and doesn't provide neat solutions for individuals and groups who expect art to be solvable or politically validating. It requires reflection and thought. Any film that attempts to deal honestly with the incredible messiness of life is going to be messy. When the world demands neatness, films like "Wanda" are going to slip through the cracks. In Carney's other anecdote, he mentions talking to Elia Kazan, Loden's husband until her death, on the telephone. I'm unclear what the conversation was about, presumably either a visit by Kazan to the BU campus or a screening of his films. Carney, who regularly shows "Wanda" in his classes, asked Kazan about the film, assuming he would be thrilled to talk about his late wife's unfairly neglected work. Instead, Kazan unleashed a torrent of obscenities at Carney and hung up. Why? Though she is a prominent part of Kazan's autobiography, much has been written about his hostility toward Loden's directorial ambitions. Not knowing either of them personally, and since they are both dead, not expecting to ever get to know them, I can't speculate on Kazan's hostility. I can only look at the facts. This much is true. Loden was a pin-up girl and model and began taking acting classes in the 1950s. She got a small part in Kazan's "Wild River." He liked her so much in the role that he cast her as one of the leads in "Splendor in the Grass" alongside Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty. She married Kazan in the late 1960s, and her acting career ended, aside from her performance in "Wanda." After "Wanda," her directing career ended. Kazan wrote a thinly disguised autobiographical novel about their relationship, "The Arrangement," in the late sixties and adapted it into a film. He cast Loden and Marlon Brando. When Brando dropped out of the film, Kirk Douglas took his place. The studio told Kazan to drop Loden and get a big-name actress. Instead of standing up for his wife, Kazan replaced her with Faye Dunaway. In 1978, Loden was diagnosed with breast cancer. Kazan asked her for a divorce in 1979, but stayed with her when the cancer spread to her liver. She died in 1980. She was 48 years old. Her final word, spoken three times, was, according to friends and relatives, spoken angrily. They were appropriate final words for a female director, an independent artist, and a person dying young, of which she was all three. "Shit. Shit. Shit."

For more on "Wanda," click here for Berenice Reynaud's article in Senses of Cinema.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Why aren't there more women directors?

If anyone has any theories, I would love to hear them. There's no doubt the film industry is every bit as sexist as any other major or minor institution, but there has to be something more insidious and culturally devastating than your run-of-the-mill good ol' boy network to explain the scarcity of films directed by women, possibly an evil inherent in the medium (maybe "Inland Empire" addresses this in some way). The music business and the publishing world are equally slimy, but many, many female writers and musicians have managed to create lasting bodies of work. In highly opinionated fact, current women writers seem to have a much easier time getting their books reviewed than men. Some of my favorite films have been directed by women, but virtually none of these women have been able to make more than a handful of films. Quality is more important than quantity, but why do women directors generally get fewer chances to make films? Looking at this comprehensive list of prominent women directors online, I wished I was surprised at my disappointment. Most of these women haven't been able to make as many movies as their male counterparts, most of them have had more trouble finding distribution (though this is a problem that seems to plague everyone except Hollywood hacks), many of them are unknown even to rabid film buffs (I watch every goddamn thing, and I'd either never heard of, or hadn't seen any films by, probably one-third of these women), and though the list is twelve years old, hardly any new names jump out as likely additions. European women directors seem to have better luck sustaining film careers than their colleagues in other continents, but only slightly. Female filmmakers can't catch a break. Why? (Keep in mind, I'm not talking about Nora Ephron or any other worthless void like her.) My two favorite American female filmmakers, Elaine May and Barbara Loden, are perfect examples of film industry marginalization of women's art.

It is a mathematical fact (or my highly biased opinion) that Elaine May's films are ten times better than her old comedy partner Mike Nichols', but she has directed only four films, while he has made (so far) 18 features, a concert film, a short, and two made-for-cable films. Is he more willing to play nice with Dr. Hollywood and Capt. Business? If he stands up for himself, is he in no danger of being called an uppity cunt by an old man with bags of money? Yes, these answers are obvious, but there's got to be more to it than this. Why has one of the greatest directors in the history of the medium had such a truncated career? I say this having seen only three of her four films, and the fourth may hold part of the answer to my question, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Elaine May was born in Philadelphia in 1932 and was in a stand-up comedy duo with Mike Nichols in the 1950s and 1960s that I know very little about, except that they were highly regarded and were closely tied to another great comic, Shelley Berman. They had an acrimonious split, and later got involved in theater, acting, and film, making amends in the mid-1990s. Nichols directed "The Graduate," among many famous films. May's debut feature, 1971's "A New Leaf," is a great comedy, despite studio interference so severe that May wanted her name taken off the film. She stars in it herself, with Walter Matthau. He's an aging playboy who's just spent most of his fortune. She's a shy, klutzy spinster who happens to be the heiress to a fortune of her own. A marriage of convenience ensues, with Matthau plotting May's "accidental" death. Despite the well-worn plot, the film is awkward, weird, hilarious, and wonderful. The studio cut over an hour of the running time, including two murders committed by Matthau, turning him into a repentant, fuzzy, redemption-worthy heart-warmer. He wasn't meant to be, and is not that way during the bulk of the film. One of the two murders excised was of May's character, at the end of the film. This brutally dark ending to a light comedy would have been a perfect example of May's ability to fuck with tone in a confident, relaxed way, but even in the filmmaker-friendly early 1970s, the studio flipped out. Would a man have been allowed freer rein? Probably. May had better creative and financial luck with her next film, the only one she didn't write, an adaptation of Neil Simon's "The Heartbreak Kid," starring Charles Grodin, Cybill Sheperd, and May's daughter Jeannie Berlin. The first of her two masterpieces, 1972's "The Heartbreak Kid" perfects the mixture of light-hearted comedy and the queasy brutalities and disappointments of living that is her unique specialty. A beautifully tough film that is much more her creation than Neil Simon's, "The Heartbreak Kid" has one of the greatest endings I've ever seen. Unfortunately, nearly every review I've read of the film mentions how great it is until the ending, usually described as an anti-climactic abandonment. This indicates to me how little even people who love movies pay attention to quiet detail and body language, especially douchebag critics. In my drunken opinion, this is one of maybe only a handful of films in existence with a perfect ending. I've just ruined this film for you with that sentence, probably, but I stand by it. May's next film, 1976's "Mikey and Nicky," (note the possible reference to Mike Nichols in the title) is the smartest and most emotionally intense film I've ever seen about male friendship. It stars John Cassavetes and Peter Falk as lifelong best friends who've gotten mixed up with local gangsters. Cassavetes has apparently ripped some of them off, and he is on the run. The movie takes place over one very long night in Philadelphia, and is May's best film. It is also one of my ten favorite films ever. Take that with a grain of salt, if you will, (especially if you think "Star Wars" is as good as it gets) but it means a lot to me. It shows how hard it is for men to be friends over a long period of time, how they can become awkward and brutal to each other, how they care about each other, how they could allow certain things to happen. It's a masterpiece of shifting tone, body language, empathy, and brutality. It's the most perceptive piece of art by a woman about men I've watched/heard/read so far. The studio, irritated with how long May was spending editing it, released it unfinished. It was unfairly but understandably compared to Cassavetes' films and declared a minor knockoff, though, despite some affinities, May's style as a writer and filmmaker is very different from Cassavetes'. May's cut of the film was finally released in the mid-1980s, and is the version available on video and DVD. Bitter about the studio interference, May never directed another film until 1987, and it killed her directorial career. Given the chance to direct a massively expensive Hollywood blockbuster, May delivered one of the most critically reviled and financially destructive box office failures in movie history, "Ishtar." It's the only film of hers I haven't seen yet, but I haven't been avoiding it because of its reputation. I've been saving it, like a precious illegal firework, for the right moment. Despite audience indifference and critical hatred, "Ishtar" enjoys an excellent reputation among the handful of my favorite movie critics, and a whole bunch of smart, interesting people I'm friends or friendly acquaintances with who aren't film buffs. This intrigues me. May is one of the best, and I'm going to be sad when there are no more films of hers to see. I'm sad that I have exhausted Cassavetes' filmography. I'm saving some Mike Leighs, some Fassbinders, some George Romeros, and I'm saving "Ishtar." But I digress. The colossal failure of "Ishtar" was almost solely blamed on co-star and producer Warren Beatty. May was even marginalized during her biggest career disaster. A woman does not have a strong enough personality to create either a masterpiece or a major flopola, the media seemed to say. It was that goddamn Warren Beatty and his hubris. Never mind that May wrote and directed the fucking movie, and that the negative critical reaction was largely due to the film's expensive budget, hype, and subsequent financial splat (when it comes down to the wire, the mainstream media will always side with businessmen over artists). As a female filmmaker, and a damn good one, she was constantly marginalized and finally gave up. Why does this continue to happen?

Coming tomorrow: Barbara Loden and "Wanda."

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Favorite Actor Monday

I know a handful of people who react with distaste as soon as Chloe Sevigny's name is mentioned, but I don't really understand why. Sure, from the late nineties to the early 2000s she was a ubiquitous party/club girl, her brother's terrible band got a lot of media attention for a very brief period thanks to nepotism, her fashion sense can be unfortunate (I even notice this and I don't know anything about clothes), and some people have a problem with that Vincent Gallo blowjob (me, I'm undecided). These things have nothing to do with her worth as an actor, though, and from the moment I saw her onscreen for the first time in 1995, I was an ardent admirer. Her performances have never disappointed me, and goddamn she takes some risks. I wish she'd get more leading roles. (I blame the blowjob for that.)

Kids (Larry Clark, 1995)
Trees Lounge (Steve Buscemi, 1996)
Gummo (Harmony Korine, 1997)
The Last Days of Disco (Whit Stillman, 1998) (This is probably not a good film, but she's great in it.)
Boys Don't Cry (Kimberly Peirce, 1999)
Julien Donkey-Boy (Harmony Korine, 1999)
American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000)
Demonlover (Olivier Assayas, 2002)
Dogville (Lars Von Trier, 2003)
The Brown Bunny (Vincent Gallo, 2003) (She does more than give a blowjob in this, you know.)
Manderlay (Lars Von Trier, 2005)
Broken Flowers (Jim Jarmusch, 2005)
Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007) (A thankless, cliched role that she still manages to do something with.)

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Nice job

Dave Kehr's latest New York Times DVD column contains a couple of unusual yet wildly sensible observations. The first is a surprisingly apt comparison between W.C. Fields and Yasujiro Ozu. The second is a reevaluation (a "flip-flop," if you will) of "Re-Animator," a movie Kehr trashed in the Chicago Reader when it came out in 1985. He thinks it looks much better now, particularly because of the resemblance between the disembodied reanimated head of actor David Gale and a certain presidential candidate. (I should also mention imdb's new plot keywords feature. "Re-Animator"'s plot keywords: Brain/Naked Woman/Syringe/Panties/Loss of Control.)

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Favorite Actor Monday

This is my first crossover post with Spacebeer's Secret Boyfriend Wednesday. I like Willem Dafoe quite a bit. It's getting harder and harder to find novel reasons to love each actor each week (which is why I will be retiring this weekly feature after the one-year anniversary), but I mostly love watching him because he seems to take the craft of acting seriously without taking himself seriously. He loves and respects what he does without being fucking ponderous about it (which separates him from an actor I used to love, but now find unbearable, Sean Penn). He also usually picks either great characters, great movies, or both.
To Live and Die in L.A. (William Friedkin, 1985)
Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986) (excellent performance, terrible movie, also great in Stone's "Born on the Fourth of July," a movie I find otherwise unwatchable)
The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988)
Cry-Baby (John Waters, 1990)
Wild at Heart (David Lynch, 1990)
"Fishing with John" (John Lurie, ice-fishing episode, 1991)
Light Sleeper (Paul Schrader, 1992)
Basquiat (Julian Schnabel, 1996)
Affliction (Paul Schrader, 1997)
New Rose Hotel (Abel Ferrara, 1998)
eXistenZ (David Cronenberg, 1999)
American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000)
Animal Factory (Steve Buscemi, 2000)
Shadow of the Vampire (E. Elias Merhige, 2000)
Spider-Man (Sam Raimi, 2002)
Auto Focus (Paul Schrader, 2002)
Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi, 2004)
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Wes Anderson, 2004)
The Aviator (Martin Scorsese, 2004)
Manderlay (Lars Von Trier, 2005)

Monday, March 12, 2007

Favorite Actor Monday

Isabelle Huppert can play any role, and more. She scares the hell out of me sometimes (particularly in "La Ceremonie"). I like that.

Passion (Jean-Luc Godard, 1982)
Entre Nous (Diane Kurys, 1983)
Story of Women (Claude Chabrol, 1988)
Amateur (Hal Hartley, 1994)
La Ceremonie (Claude Chabrol, 1994)
The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, 2001)
I Heart Huckabees (David O. Russell, 2004) (I'm not a big fan of this movie. It's an interesting mess, with some frustratingly hollow acting, but Huppert and Mark Wahlberg are great in it.)

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Favorite Actor Monday: Late Sunday Edition

Sy Richardson delivers one of my favorite movie monologues to a bewildered Emilio Estevez in "Repo Man." Though the monologue is pretty funny on its own (as you will see below), Richardson delivers it with such straight-faced matter-of-factness that he brings it to an even higher plane of hilarity. He's also done some very fine character work, bit parts, and cameos in many good and bad movies for many years.

"Repo Man" monologue:
"Born in Chicago, raised in the city streets. My mama gave me the basic facts of life. Get in the car, boy. Put your seatbelt on. I never ride with anyone unless they wear their seatbelt. That’s one of the rules. You look like you’ve been in a few scrapes. I mean you’re skinny and weak-looking, but you’re kinda wiry, too. I bet you can handle yourself alright if you have to. (laughs) If I get into a fight, man, I’m serious. If someone crosses me, straight off I’ll nut ‘em in the face and bring my heel down on their foot and break the bone. I’m a fighter and a winner. I’m a bad man. You know, everyone can tell the way I am. I walk into a bar or someone’s place of work, they’re shit-scared. They know I ain’t no cop. They think that I’m a killer (pause) and a wounder. I’ll kill anyone that crosses me, or put ‘em in the hospital. I don’t mess around. Know what I mean? I’m a bad man. Like music? Listen to this. (turns on car stereo) I was into these dudes before anybody. They asked me to be their manager. I called bullshit on that. Managing a pop group’s no job for a man. Hey. Guess how many suits I got. Guess how many pair of shoes. Guess how many ties. Shit. I don’t know. Shut up. Must be twenty-five at least. And you better believe they’re all silk. Every one. Think your girlfriend loves you? Guess again. One way to tell if a woman really loves you. If she’ll have your dog. I’m a bad man."

Repo Man (Alex Cox, 1984)
Sid and Nancy (Alex Cox, 1986)
Straight to Hell (Alex Cox, 1987)
Tapeheads (Bill Fishman, 1988)
They Live (John Carpenter, 1988)
Mystery Train (Jim Jarmusch, 1989)
To Sleep with Anger (Charles Burnett, 1990)
The Glass Shield (Charles Burnett, 1994)
Human Nature (Michel Gondry, 2001)

He's also in Charles Burnett's "My Brother's Wedding," which is probably great, but unavailable on DVD or video. Burnett should be more widely known, but the media overlords have decided that only one prominent independent black filmmaker is all the world can handle, and that's going to continue to be Spike Lee in perpetuity. Lee has done some very good work, but is far too often a media huckster and snake oil salesman. Burnett deserves Lee's exposure, much like Albert Brooks deserves Woody Allen's. But I digress from Sy Richardson, who is great.

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