Thursday, October 7, 2010

Cabbage Patch Kids: Women Make Movies!

Two nights ago it was my privilege to sit on a panel at a Fringe Festival edition of Cherchez la Femme, an ever lively, informal, monthly feminist salon presided over by the formidable Karen Pickering.

Along with my wonderful fellow panellists Namila Benson, Lou Sanz and Megan Evans, we discussed, at Karen and our audience's goading, matters pertaining to feminism and the arts.

Women's Cinema: The Contested Screen
Being the sort of person who is always sure to research matters extensively before daring to let loose any sort of commentary into the public sphere, I prepared several pages of notes for Cherchez la Femme, accounting for many of the major players and developments in “women's cinema” from the very dawn of the seventh art through to the current day.

My fear of public humiliation no doubt to some extent fuels my thoroughness in these matters and so, naturally, I made note of so many more women filmmakers and theorists, and pertinent moments in time, than I was remotely called upon to wax knowledgeable about. Of course, while it is generally best that any error on these occasions be on the side of being over-prepared rather than the opposite, I feel it is even better still to put to some use all of that extra, otherwise redundant preparation. And hence, this blog post.

A text I referred to extensively ahead of last Tuesday's forum was Alison Butler's Women's Cinema: The Contested Screen, part of Wallflower Press' “Short Cuts” series and which, atop giving a readily digestible guide to key developments and shifts in feminist film theory, offers a historical guide to women-made cinema, at least in so much as that might encompass films directed by women and, furthermore, films perceptibly bearing some sort of discernible authorial imprint, which is to say, its focus is on auteur films directed by women.

Running to just 144 pages, Women's Cinema is a great primer in the contributions women directors have made to the cinema across its 115 years... and counting. Indeed, it plays a vital part in the necessary rehabilitation of some very major figures in film history who still haven't received their fair due, none more so than Alice Guy, whose 1896 minute-long film The Cabbage Patch Fairy looks certain now to have been the first narrative fiction film ever made, and who even ran an American studio in the early 1910s. But that's not all, folks; she made early experiments with synchronised sound around 1905 (!), and many are now arguing that she, and not D.W. Griffith, was the first to use the close-up, on which cinematographic device hangs the whole of the subsequent Hollywood star system! (For better or for worse...)

She also had women playing men in films, the narratives of which, while often very brief, were wont to espouse highly progressive views. The list of her firsts could go on and on and on. And yet it wasn't long ago at all that hers was a name barely even mentioned in accounts of film history.

Clearly, a necessary part of the feminist “project” in film must be to excavate and celebrate the accomplishments of pioneering women in the industry whose achievements have been left in the margins for much too long.

On which note, I wish to devote much of the rest of this post to a major shortcoming I perceive in Butler's generally very worthy book. Of course, 144 pages can only be expected to encompass so much, and it is clear that the achievements of key players in areas of the production of “women's cinema” other than direction – actors such as Katherine Hepburn or Marlene Dietrich, or current-day producers like the estimable Christine Vachon, or male directors like George Cukor or Douglas Sirk, known for being “women's directors” – fall beyond the scope of this book.

So, sure, Women's Cinema is not meant as a comprehensive account of all those who can be said to have contributed to a women's cinema, just those who have made a directorial contribution, especially wherever that intersects with feminist film theory.

But this doesn't excuse what I perceive to be a terrible absence from Butler's book, an absence all the more glaring because it corresponds to a field of cinematic production and directorial/authorial practice where women have been pioneers many times over.

Here then, as a small corrective, is a shout-out to a few major women animators, without whom this most protean subset of film production – and, by extension, all of the cinema – would be immeasurably the poorer.

Lotte Reiniger

The Adventures of Prince Achmed

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) is the oldest surviving animated feature film and features a technique indisputably the invention of its director: silhouette animation, a cinematic analogue to shadow puppetry.

Three years in production – Reiniger had to pose and re-pose her silhouette figures something along the order of 300,000 times! – The Adventures of Prince Achmed has lost none of its charm in the succeeding 80-odd years, and I can't recommend highly enough tracking down the British Film Institute's DVD release of it, especially as it features a terrific documentary on Reiniger.

Mary Ellen Bute

A highly influential animator, yet little-known today, Mary Ellen Bute was a pioneering synaesthetic animator, which is to say, she was one of a number of animators/experimental filmmakers around from the late 1920s/early 1930s onwards endeavouring to visualise sound.

Apparently her work was often seen in cinemas back in those halcyon days when cinemas ran shorts – even experimental work – ahead of feature film presentations. Were that we would see the likes of those days again.

Claire Parker (and Alexandra Grinevsky)

Alongside Alexandre Alexeïeff, in the early '30s Parker pioneered (with contributions in the prototyping from Alexeïeff's first wife, Alexandra Grinevsky) what is surely the most meticulous animation method ever devised, that of pin-screen animation, which achieves a beautiful, monochrome chiaroscuro effect derived from the shadows cast by the meticulous frame-by-frame arrangement of literally hundreds of thousands of headless pins embedded to varying depths within a screen.

Night on Bald Mountain

Alexeïeff and Parker made a few stunning shorts employing this unbelievably painstaking method, but their best known film work is probably the beautiful still pin-screen images that accompany the opening voice-over narration in Orson Welles' The Trial. Don't though let that put you off tracking down their incredible 1933 short horror film, Night on Bald Mountain, just for starters!

Caroline Leaf

In the late 1960s, Leaf pioneered sand animation, a technique profiled at last year's Melbourne International Animation Festival, in which sand, or other grains or powdery substances, is poured upon a lightbox and, frame-by-frame, rearranged. It can make for beautifully fluid, texturally rich animations, whether of an abstract or narrative bent. Certainly, that most ubiquitous of cinematic transition devices, the dissolve (from one scene into the next), achieves new levels of poetry when done with sand... which leads me to...

Kseniya Simonova

You might not know her name, but perhaps you've already seen her work. Has not everybody in fact already seen viral clips of this extraordinary young woman's work as demonstrated on Ukraine's Got Talent?

Simonova is not just a sand animator; she's a performance sand animator. Her work is like a behind-the-scenes, making-of production of itself, a performance where the act of animation and the animation itself are inseparable, and where the whole concept of a frame, as a measurable, consistent, discrete unit of time, completely breaks down, is completely dissolved, for Simonova's frames are both frames-in-the-making and transitions from one frame to the next within themselves!

Deleuze would have loved this.

I'm reminded too a little of Jan Švankmajer's privileging of the visibly palpated animated object in his films. Not for Švankmajer concerns about wanting to remove fingerprints from moulded clay, erasing evidence of the human manipulation of marionettes or any other perceivable traces of the animator's artistry in the interests of a greater “suspension of disbelief” – quite the contrary! (All the better for nonsensing any suggestion that the realms of “reality” and “the imagination” might be entirely discrete constructions, never prone to slippage from one to the other, nor back again.)

I mention this because Simonova's work clearly only gains from seeing her perform her beautiful – and emotive – animations.

It's animation, but not as we hitherto had known it. Surely animation festivals the world over ought be clamouring to have her grace their events?


Women's Cinema: in a cinema in Melbourne near you!

I'll wind this post up by noting that there are several films directed by women in Australian cinemas presently, and another, one of the very best films of the year in fact, due to be released here very shortly.

I was asked early on during Cherchez la Femme, apropos of a woman, Kathryn Bigelow, winning a Best Director Oscar for the very first time only this year, why it is that so few women are presently making films, or having their films distributed, and latterly, acclaimed.

Of course, the reasons that so few films made by women receive widespread distribution and/or are of the Hollywood big-budget blockbusting ilk are many and complex, but it is certainly not the case that women are making very few films at all, or that they are being altogether ghettoised and denied distribution. Things ain't totally bleak, as the following list of women-helmed feature films in distribution in Australia will illustrate.

The Tree (d. Julie Bertucelli)

In release now. Screened at MIFF. A beautifully lensed tale set in a south Queensland everytown in which Charlotte Gainsbourg's French migrant character loses her Aussie husband after he dies at the wheel, ploughing into the massive Moreton Bay Fig Tree that looms large – and then larger and larger – on their property. Perhaps her husband's spirit is then infused with the tree, as his favourite daughter, who frequently communes with it, believes, and perhaps not...

The Tree

It's a lovely film, graced with superb performances all round, but I have to say it's somehow not as magical as I had hoped. I don't think it quite played up the supernatural-cum-magic realist elements of the narrative to the degree it ought to have; it feels like Bertucelli hedged her bets a little, making for a last act that is ultimately a little underwhelming, notwithstanding that it features a ferocious cinematic storm ripe for the likes of a Peter Tscherkassky to plunder.

The Kids are All Right (d. Lisa Cholodenko)

In release now. Screened at MIFF. I haven't seen it. I have heard some very good things but also note that it has infuriated several lesbian friends of mine.

Please Give (d. Nicole Holofcener)

In release now. Screened at MIFF. I haven't seen it either but note the presence in it of Catherine Keener, for whom I will always have time!

Sagan (d. Diane Kurys)

In release now. A biopic on French writer Françoise Sagan whose first novel, Bonjour tristesse, was adapted for the big screen in 1958 with Jean Seberg in the lead (d. Otto Preminger). Alas, I haven't seen Sagan.

South Solitary (d. Shirley Barrett)

In release now. Was the Opening Night Film of this year's Sydney Film Festival. Again, I regret to say I'm yet to see it.

The Waiting City (d. Claire McCarthy)

In release now. I've not seen it. Whereas...

Winter's Bone (d. Debra Granik)

Screened at MIFF. Will be released here 28 October. One of the films of the year! A great slice of Social Realist Ozark Gothic (if you will), a wonderfully atmospheric and really rather chilling descent into a desperate backwoods underworld where Southern hospitality is stretched to breaking point when it comes to matters surrounding methamphetamines and their production.

Winter's Bone

There are unfailingly terrific performances from the whole cast, most of whom are lumbered with extremely unattractive characters and made up to look like they really ought to grace Faces of Meth scare posters. I'll be sure to rave a little more in-depth about Winter's Bone a little closer to its release.


Now, it might well be the case that most of these films are independent, narrow release productions, but with the relatively limited exposure to a public that that signifies, a happy flipside exists too; you can be sure that these films represent much less compromise on the parts of their makers than invariably occurs when almost anybody, man, woman or beast, is entrusted with the big BIG dollars that are the stuff of Hollywood blockbuster production.

Something else to note: four of the films listed just above got an airing at Melbourne's flagship film festival ahead of a cinema release, while another opened the Sydney film festival. Let's pause then to consider the salutary influence of our major film festivals upon the exhibition and distribution prospects of films from women (and indeed, from all less enfranchised) filmmakers, and pause also to note, and to trumpet the fact, that the Artistic Directors of the Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide Film Festivals are presently all women (Michelle Carey, Clare Stewart and Katrina Sedgwick, respectively), not forgetting that Anne Démy-Geroe oversaw the Brisbane International Film Festival from its birth in 1991 all the way through to just last year as well!

I don't know if that has much been commented on elsewhere, but that sure strikes me as a victory for female representation in the upper echelons of Australian film culture. The incumbency of women in programming films for the major festivals, as well as for other events, and within cultural institutions (like ACMI) is not in any way to be underestimated when it comes to getting more women filmmakers' work projected onto the umpteens of big screens around these parts, whereupon, it falls to us, to give them an audience...


Lastly, it would be remiss of me not to plug “Voice of the Grain: Films by Arthur and Corinne Cantrill” at ACMI over the coming weeks, beginning this Sunday. Jake Wilson has curated four programs, each a Sunday apart, spanning 50 years of the practice of the godparents of Australian experimental cinema. Go see!