OTI Online
Summer 1997

Get Reel!
Feminists Refocus Film
by Molly Haskell


Bumper Crop: Last year we were treated to the rich and adventurous performances of Academy Award Winner Frances McDormand in Fargo (top left) and her sister nominees -- Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Brenda Blethyn (left) in Secrets and Lies and Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient (above).

Twenty years ago at Academy Award time, there weren't enough leading actresses to fill the five slots for Best Actress nominee. Supporting roles had to be upgraded to leads and Europeans in foreign-language films filled in simply to round out the quota. In 1977 Faye Dunaway won for Network: every man's nightmare of the New Career Woman, a television executive ballsy enough to blast through the glass ceiling, but one who quotes Nielson ratings while she's making love. Trailing Dunaway were Sissy Spacek, nominated for Carrie, a high school revenge monster out of the perfervid imagination of Stephen King; Talia Shire for Rocky (a supporting part if ever there was one); Marie-Christine Barrault for Cousin, Cousine and Liv Ullmann for Bergman's Face to Face.

It was the great irony of the 1970s: In counterpoint to the success story of feminism and its propulsion of women into every area of public and professional life, women in Hollywood were nowhere, with female stars fast becoming an endangered species. The studio system that kept actors and actresses, those lucrative investments, under contract in the previous decades had been dismantled, and women themselves (think of Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave) were more interested in becoming "real people," political activists, free agents, than -- the invidious term of the time -- "sex objects."

The glamour mystique went out with Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. Women no longer wanted to be discovered at Schwab's drugstore, but Paul Newman and Robert Redford happily moved in to fill the vacuum as the new pin-ups. Buddy movies, disaster stories and gangster epics built around bankable male stars were the genres of the moment, and even those male-heavy dramas came to look Shakespearean, compared to the mindless special-effects extravaganzas that Hollywood now puts out for male teenagers.

New Breed: In notable directorial debuts this summer are All Over Me's Alex Sichel (top left) with producer Dolly Hall, (background) and Lynne Stopkewich of Kissed (bottom left). You won't soon forget her star, Molly Parker (above).

Nevertheless, 1996 was a banner year for women, thanks to a bumper crop of great independent films and even a few Hollywood testimonials to the fact that there was life in the ladies yet. In fact, our numbers had been increasing throughout the 1980s, though women were still a long way from commanding salaries or sustaining careers in anything like the star stratosphere occupied by Cruise - Schwarzenegger - Pitt - Gibson - Willis - Ford - Stallone - Eastwood, et al. But last year we did get to savor the rich and adventurous performances of Frances McDormand, Emily Watson, Brenda Blethyn, Diane Keaton and Kristin Scott Thomas. And there was Debbie Reynolds (one of my own favorites) redeeming not only her own cutsie 1950s image, but the Hollywood Mother, that breed of demons and hags, as a fully sexual "older" woman with deep, frustrated creative fires of her own.

It's still a man's world out there, but we're beginning to see not just the occasional stellar or quirky female performance, but women and girls actually driving the plot. The First Wives Club, like Waiting to Exhale, provided an exhilarating revenge fantasy for older women discarded for younger models and proved there was an audience for women's films. The operating maxim in Hollywood is that females will go to see male rite-of-passage movies, but males won't go to see the girls doing their thing. Too threatening, perhaps. So this provided a convenient and not entirely erroneous rationale for sticking to formulaic one-size-fits-all stories of male derring-do. But after years of getting only the guy side of bonding -- little men, little men in groups, little men come of age, little men blow each other up -- we're at last in the midst of a blizzard of estrogen-driven fables.

From nonexistence to a virtual cornucopia, what accounts for the change? Women writers, directors and producers, for one thing. Certainly there have been influences and inspirations: The exuberantly groundbreaking Thelma and Louise combined the themes of female bonding, female outlaws and the revenge melodrama to set up most of the major story lines to follow. Women bonded more gently in Little Women and How to Make an American Quilt and less gently in Girls' Town, Foxfire and the marvelously weird, true-life based Heavenly Creatures. But the real change is in the landscape of filmmaking itself: women emerging from film schools (where they constitute half of all enrollees) and the flourishing of independent cinema under the aegis of festivals like Sundance.

Right, like the friends of All Over Me, Ripe's, Daisy Eagan (left) and Monica Keena, as fraternal twins, drift apart.

Left, Coming of Age: In All Over Me, Tara Subkoff (far left) and Alison Folland, play best friends who gradually find different interests. The film presents a deeply sympathetic account of how each of these girls embraces her destiny, how one is lost and one is found.

So prevalent have women become that we must now adjust our sights and alter our critical vocabulary. No longer is each woman an anomaly, bearing the burden of her sex, obliged to fulfill some sort of politically correct agenda -- which, in any case, in this era of multiple feminisms and wildly differing individual needs and ambitions, could never be agreed upon. And no longer should women be indulged just because they are women, new at the game, in need of blind critical approval as a form of hand-holding or affirmative action.

Seventies feminism demanded solidarity and loyalty, and gloried in the discovery of common goals, of a mutual sense of oppression and the need to forge new opportunities. Now we're at the stage where we can take advantage of opportunities, and take delight in our divergences. Directors like Kathryn Bigelow (who cut her filmmaking teeth on action directors like Sam Peckinpah), Amy Heckerling, Penny Marshall, Agnieska Holland, Jane Campion and Nora Ephron are almost as different from each other as they are from most male directors. Moreover, as we've opened up the screen and our minds to the previously taboo -- to homosexuality, to shameful sexual and romantic fantasies, even to incest -- the task of appraisal and analysis, of maintaining some moral center without becoming moralistic, is hard enough from a human point of view. The attempt to view art from a "woman's point of view" when we are so busy celebrating a tapestry of difference seems almost impossible.

It is no longer sufficient -- if it ever was -- to unmask the evils of the patriarchy by simply labeling this or that act or gesture sexist or misogynist. Yet, my own feeling is that it's also impossible, as any kind of a feminist living in this day and age, not to look at movies from a "woman's point of view." How can you not respond viscerally and spontaneously to the adventure of being a woman and how it is portrayed, how it infuses and shapes our stories?

It inevitably infuses criticism, too, mine anyway, but not, I hope, in a programmatic way. I've always maintained that the greatest service one can perform as a reviewer is to judge the work of art on its own terms, and I fully believe that the women who are making films today would feel insulted and patronized if sympathetic reviewers were to temper their standards in the name of favored-nation treatment.

I don't expect to devote all my critical attention to women's films or films about women, either, just because the directors are struggling, or the films are low-budget or need help. They must take their place in the marketplace, and in the competition for viewers' hearts and minds: we should support them because they are good, not because they are worthy.

As our celluloid cup fills, this summer's releases bring us some notable debuts by women directors. With remarkable candor, they confront female growing pains, sexual confusion and the different kinds of love that disrupt friendships and drive a girl wild.

All Over Me, the story of two high school girls during a fateful week's crisis in their friendship, is one of the best of the new films, a marvel of tight construction and distinguished acting despite a low-budget, laid-back look. The work of sisters Alex Sichel (director) and writer Sylvia Sichel, the movie is set in New York's Hell's Kitchen, and vividly explores a web of relationships among a mixed group of dangerously drifting teenagers. Like Kids, the young people are chronically unchaperoned, vulnerable to drugs and mad about music, but there the similarity ends. Instead of the scabrously sensational and titillatingly voyeuristic view of a doomed generation that Larry Clark gave us in Kids, the Sichel sisters present a deeply sympathetic, insider account of how each of the girls gradually embraces her destiny; how one is lost and one is found.

Claude (Alison Folland) and Ellen (Tara Subkoff) spend hours in Claude's bedroom, playing their guitars, working on music with the plan of starting a band, sometimes collapsing in giggles or sleep. At 15 they have been central to each other's lives, but as the outside world beckons they gradually find different friends and interests. Ellen, fragile and blond, becomes involved with a boyfriend (a nastily seductive Cole Hauser), while Claude becomes acquainted with a fellow waiter (Wilson Cruz) at the pizza parlor where she works and a gay musician (Pat Briggs), who encourages her to try out for a band.

In an early scene, the girls' horseplay slides into the erotic, and the film illuminates that shadowy realm when sexuality is not yet an either/or thing. But as Ellen's sinister, abusive boyfriend takes her in one direction, Claude, who is at first devastated by her friend's desertion, gradually, with the help of new friends, comes into her own, as musician and as lesbian lover.

In the surface dynamic of the friendship, Ellen is the "pretty one," petite and self-aware, more evolved socially while Claude is the awkward one, phlegmatic, unassured. Yet Alison Folland's Claude is the stunner, with one of those faces that speaks to the camera, registering the movements of the soul as she emerges before our eyes. Watching her is like watching yourself at 15 and suddenly remembering that heavy slumberous feeling when everyone else's feet seemed to be able to fit into Cinderella's slippers except yours.

Like Heavenly Creatures, the story of a murder that came out of the fierce bond between two teenage girls in New Zealand, All Over Me shows the hothouse environment of that sort of insular friendship. Indeed, this is one of the most striking themes in recent movies, the us-against-the-world mentality that can spill over into violence or tragedy, or can simply be the source of deep hurt when one of the two divides her allegiance. Last year's Walking and Talking by Nicole Holofcaner, showed the effect on two friends, buddies from childhood, when one became engaged. Because we're taught from childhood to anticipate marriage as the great fulfillment of our lives as women, it comes as a shock to realize how terribly sad it is, for the one who ties the knot, "forsaking all others," and perhaps even more, at least at that moment, for those forsaken and left behind.

What marriage was to the virgins of earlier generations, the first sexual experience is now. Mo Ogrodnik's Ripe, like All Over Me explores that moment in the lives of two closely bound girls, in this case fraternal twins. Like the friends of All Over Me, Violet (Monica Keena) and Rosie (Daisy Eagan) have developed in different ways, Monica being the pretty seductive one, Rosie the tomboy.

In a setting that seems more lurid fantasy than plausible reality, the sisters find themselves hiding out in an army base after surviving an automobile accident that leaves their parents dead. Ogrodnik rushes over scenes of parental abuse and the accident itself to concentrate on the interaction of the sisters with men they meet in the camp: among them a sweet but ineffectual drifter who takes them in; a black officer who teaches Rosie to shoot.

Bordering on exploitation, the film dwells on sordid details: casual thievery and lawlessness by the two girls, a strange bonfire scene in which soldiers strip in an apparent homoerotic ritual, and a sense of sex -- on the mind, ever ready to erupt -- that is more overripe than ripe.

Women directors are certainly pulling no punches where sex is concerned. Kissed is not just the first film by Canadian Lynne Stopkewich, but the first film, as far as I know, whose heroine makes love to corpses in a mortuary. Kin to another Canadian export, the ultra-kinky Crash, in which jaded couples, seeking some transcendent experience, are turned on by car crashes, Kissed is fascinated by the links between sex and death, and carries this fascination to the outer limit. Is it worth the trip? Well, yes and no.

Adapted from a short story by Barbara Gowdy, We So Seldom Look on Love, the film also resembles Crash in that the female protagonists don't wait to be asked: they seek the release (and the protection?) of sex without love to pursue their bizarre tastes ruthlessly. But while Crash is shot with metallic grays and silvers, echoing the coldness of the characters and the automobile-saturated near-future it depicts, Kissed sees its characters through a warm, cheerful glow.

What's unusual is that main character Sandra Larson (Molly Parker), far from being the sort of creep we imagine necrophiliacs to be, is a surprisingly smart, more or less well-adjusted young woman who happens to discover a taste for cadavers. She even goes out with an attractive man, but the pull of death is stronger than he is, so strong she pulls him into her morbid netherworld.

The director, like her heroine, is drawn to death and the feel of it, the stillness and quiet of the funeral parlor in which Sandra works (her job choice is more than coincidence). Stopkewich follows the trajectory of the story with an unflinching eye, as if the young woman's increasingly rapt communion with her dead lovers were the most normal thing in the world. More than the act of congress with dead flesh, the director's quietly imperturbable gaze is the most haunting thing about the film.

Injecting a wild note of deadpan humor into the sisters-and-rivals theme is Australian writer-director Shirley Barrett's Love Serenade. Shown at the New Directors Festival and winner of the Camera d'Or at Cannes as best first feature, the movie tells the story of the agitation that occurs when a radio personality from Brisbane, a smooth-voiced lounge lizard named Ken Sherry (George Shevtsov), moves in next door to the Hurleys.

Vicki-Ann Hurley (Rebecca Frith), the beautician sister and sophisticate of the duo, runs right over with a marlin the girls have just caught, and is perfectly unruffled when Ken, saying he doesn't eat fish, shuts the door firmly in her face. The virginal Dimity Hurley (Miranda Otto), an oddball who works at a local Chinese restaurant, proceeds to hang around Ken's studio, draped on her bike. She's the persistant type, and it's only a matter of time before she winds up first in his bed, losing her chastity when the thrice-divorced Ken lazily accepts her offer to ease his loneliness.

The two actresses are uncanny in the roles, crazy in that way that passes for eccentricity in the backwaters of Australia. The town called Sunray, with its flat, unpeopled landscape, is a character in the film, a place so backward the radio station has yet to discover CDs. It's the end of the earth, and the trio in the film are as stuck as the carp mounted on Ken's wall. Director Barrett uses the theme of hooking a fish and letting it go, to wittily echo the game that is being played without ever tipping her hand as to who is hooking whom.

Two's company and three's a crowd, even at the earth's edge. The violent climax is both a surprise and not a surprise: an absurd yet logical way of putting an end to an impossibly crowded threesome.

Molly Haskell's latest book, Holding My Own in No Man's Land (Oxford University Press), is a collection of pieces written in the 20 years since the publication of her landmark From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (University of Chicago Press).

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