The End Run

Illustration by J. Brooks Robinson

The Myth of Collaboration

Other columns in this series:


Part 1: The Myth of Gender

Part 2: The Myth of the F-Word

Part 4: The Myth of Collaboration II

Part 5: The Myth of Equality

In a 2017 interview with DCist, influential feminist artist Judy Chicago made a blunt observation that’s applicable across a range of creative fields: “There has been in the art world for a very long time a certain illusion about the single male genius.” Cinema is no exception, and one need only consider Andrew Sarris’s pantheon of film directors from his 1968 book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968 for concrete evidence of this.

“Single male genius” and other fairy tales

The conflation of “genius” with “single male genius” has a long, broad history, and comes with certain privileges. Of the recent allegations against musician Ryan Adams, Laura Snaps at The Guardian notes “The concept of male genius insulates against all manner of sin. Bad behavior can be blamed on his prerequisite troubled past. His trademark sensitivity offers plausible deniability when he is accused of less-than-sensitive behavior. His complexity underpins his so-called genius.”

So seemingly conventional is this wisdom for women across the arts, it is perhaps therefore unsurprising that many feminist critics have long been skeptical about how terms like “genius” are deployed in the first place.

A famous example is art historian Linda Nochlin’s foundational 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, which painstakingly maps out why this question is rigged from the outset. Noting the centuries-long tendency to associate men with the concept of “genius” to a near mythic degree, she contextualizes the popular legends surrounding artists like Vincent van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec as “fairy tales and self-fulfilling prophecy”.

Nochlin notes the question is booby-trapped for maximum dismissal as “it falsifies the nature of the issue at the same time that it insidiously supplies its own answer: ‘There have been no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness.’” The knee-jerk reaction is to posit examples to the contrary — Artemisia Gentileschi! Georgia O’Keefe! Louise Bourgeois! — which, while logical, has the negative effect of validating the question rather than addressing the cultural, systematic, and institutional realities that disadvantage women artists in the first place.

With the rise of second-wave feminism, art practice itself revealed activist and community-building potential and as such there is a long history of women working collectively to make art (such as Judy Chicago’s landmark installation, 1979’s The Dinner Party; see below).

Although not specific to women or Western art-making traditions in general, nor uniquely contemporary in its origins, filmmaking brings with it curious assumptions about how a work is made beyond the context of the singular (and usually assumed to be male) genius.

The magic of collaboration

As I will discuss further here and in the next column, beyond some notable examples (specifically in animation and experimental film), making movies almost always relies on some form of collaboration. In the case of directors who collaborate, there are many famous examples across a number of different cultures and historical contexts — Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Ethan and Joel Coen, and Austrian early cinema pioneers Luise and Jacob Fleck.

People collaborate to make movies in ways that reflect interpersonal relationships. Some director teams like Straub and Huillet or Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani are married couples, while others are siblings such as Delphine and Muriel Coulin, Jen and Sylvia Soska, Eric and Caroline du Potet, Lana and Lilly Wachowski, the Coens, and the Flecks. Some were brought together in other ways: Brazilian filmmakers Juliana Roja and Marco Dutra met at film school, while in Austria Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala of Goodnight Mommy and The Lodger discovered a shared passion for filmmaking when Fiala was working as a babysitter for Franz’s children.

With these collaborations, we still bring other assumptions to the table. In 2017, I had the privilege of hosting Cattet and Forzani for a retrospective of their shorts and feature films (Amer, The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, and Let the Corpses Tan) at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

I was assigned to write a profile on Hélène alone, emphasizing her status as a woman filmmaker, but after speaking with her for less than thirty seconds, I realized that such a profile would be impossible: Cattet and Forzani collaborate on the fine-detail of everything they make together, and it is the often electric tension between their individual backgrounds (Cattet’s in experimental film and Forzani’s in genre cinema) that creates the spark that makes their work so dynamic. Yes, Hélène is a woman filmmaker, but in this case, to separate her practice from Bruno’s does a disservice to the essence of her craft.

The diversity of collaboration

But this is of course not the case with all directorial collaborations. Like all relationships, you find what works best and go with it.

Lauren Wolkstein, a 2017-2018 Women at Sundance Fellow and Summer 2018 MacDowell Colony Fellow, co-directed the unforgettable 2017 feature The Strange Ones with Christopher Radcliffe (adapted from their 2011 short of the same name), and she is also an extraordinarily accomplished filmmaker in her own right, working independently in film and television. [Ed. Note: The Strange Ones used Endcrawl, which publishes this site.]

The 2017 film adaptation of New Zealand author Margaret Mahy’s revered YA supernatural classic The Changeover was directed by husband-and-wife team Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie — McKenzie is a playwright and director, while Harcourt’s background is in acting, with extensive experience coaching other performers in films by New Zealand luminaries such as Jane Campion and Peter Jackson.

When writing about directorial collaboration, a focus on gender sometimes risks singling out only half of the team. In some cases — such as Wolkstein or Harcourts — it’s straightforward enough to identify the individual achievements, but with others — such as the Soska twins or Cattet and Forzani – such an effort borders on the pointless, and denies the magic of the collaboration itself. Either of these collaborative structures has the same potential to produce gripping cinema, and both are a poignant reminder that the dominant myth of the single male genius is not as carved in stone as the usual awards season nominations might otherwise suggest.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is an Australian film critic and academic who has written five books on cult, horror and exploitation film with an emphasis on gender politics and representations of violence. Her research has recently focused on women's filmmaking, co-curating the 2017 "Pioneering Women" program at the Melbourne International Film Festival, and co-editing a forthcoming book on Elaine May. Her sixth book, 1000 WOMEN IN HORROR, is due for a 2019 release.

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