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."


conorj said...

Maybe there's less female filmmakers because ultra-low budget twenty something indie directors know more astutely what the female experience is like than females themselves do. They just don't know how charming their wayward directionless selves are! Ow, I think my cheek just bit my tongue off....

And don't even get me started on that pseudo-femme jamie babbit, as she's being rewarded for stealing glory from the smart and sensitive female filmmakers who don't have to hide behind lesbian teenage angst to receive critical acclaim and ill-deserved festival awards, and a reputation that far exceeds her talents.

Truth be known, I think movies rarely get made, and especially used to get made without some kind of misunderstanding sketchball paying for the whole thing, and he has probably degraded women his whole life--so why would he want to risk millions of dollars on one. Money deals, not necessarily the art of movies though, has generally been a male enterprise that is wrought with bias and whatnot. Now that people are making movies themselves, and at least can make their own reputation with fewer resources, the landscape IS changing, and women are able to go out and make good and terrible movies alike. I guess there's less good ones by women beceause there's less ones by women, but I think that will change a lot in the next twenty years. I also think the indie niche market, "outsider cinema," is creating a schload of very specific, and very shitty, pseudo-issue, pop-punk, if it's different it must mean i'm smart sort of movies that are letting women and gay men direct movies who don't have much to say other than I like rock and roll and it was really tough growing up, and yeah I spike my hair bitch. So yes, in that way, there finally is equality of giving ill-deserving filmmakers chances with indie commercial sized budgets.

As another sidenote, Camille Paglia has lots to say about the natural impulse in art, and esp. filmmaking, that men have and women in general lack that's fairly interesting and true to some degree (check out the opening essay in her book _Sexual Personae). But alas, modern public life doesn't require gender specs nearly as much, and individuals are able to forge a path with their own individual sense of gender and identity. Optimistically, we are able to be and express ourselves a little more frankly in movies these days. Pessimistically, there's about forty thousand douchebags willing to follow any hack who has enough confidence to say, "Y'know, my story (fuck that word) really has something important to say." None of that is about the brilliant subtlties, and enlightening sensitivity, of May, Loden, Su friedrich, Maya Deren, Agnes Varda, or Miranda July (whose one film was quite an effort in my opinion). I guess it is what always is when it comes to good filmmakers: some people have it, some don't. Certainly, the women who have had it in the past have gotten a raw deal. Now I think the raw deals would come more specifically from the fact they they are artists, with subtle, disorienting, radical, and sometimes confusing material. The way artists should be, and always will be misunderstood, I suppose. Anyway, there's some disorganized thoughts on the whole thing.

joel said...

i'm just glad the wachowski brothers are doing their part by one of them becoming a woman. that'll even the score a little bit!

steiger said...

i'll have to think a little more about this. but i just watched a documentary about film editing called the cutting edge that pointed out that editors, originally, were women. in fact, they say that before sound came around, editing was entirely considered women's work. and there are still lots of very important editors who are women.

so i am amending your question a little, i think: "why are there a lot of women editors, but not so many women directors?" the makers of that documentary (which was interesting but not great, by the way) theorize a bit about why this is, and i found it all really interesting. in the end, editors have a lot of power and importance, and very little public recognition. (in fact, the editing process in hollywood is supposed to be mystified to preserve the big fictions, right?) tarantino says he chose a woman editor because he wanted someone who would be nurturing and not try to impose her opinion on his films. hmm.

and, incidentally, i think the only female director they interviewed was jodie foster.

i hope miranda july makes more movies.

Suzanna said...

Ishtar is a brilliant, ahead of its time, hilarious and unjustly maligned political comedy. Hoffman and Beatty give some of their best comedic performances. The general public does not know that Ishtar actually topped the box office for two weeks, nor do they know that the movie's bad publicity was orchestrated from within the studio that produced it to set an example for future producers and directors in a policy from the new studio boss. As it turns out, most of those who wrote negative reviews later had to admit to their embarrassment that they hadn't even seen the movie!
My advice: go see it, not once, not twice - it takes several viewings to discover all the political and comedic gems in the script. It's great.

Blog Archive