The End Run

Illustration by J. Brooks Robinson

What does it mean to be an exception to the rule?

Other columns in this series:

Part 1: The Myth of Gender

Part 2: The Myth of the F-Word

Part 3: The Myth of Collaboration I

Part 4: The Myth of Collaboration II

Part 5: The Myth of Equality

In 2015, Women in Film — a non-profit organization dedicated to advocating for and advancing the careers of women working in the screen industries — launched a social media initiative called #52FilmsByWomen, part of their Trailblazing Women project in collaboration with Turner Classic Movies. The challenge was simple: watch one film by a woman each week for one year. With over 10,000 pledges, the project’s success speaks of people’s conscious desire to re-conceive their media consumption; it encourages an awareness of who made a film that goes beyond auteurism’s brand-name shorthand, and demands a deeper dive into the ideological biases that govern our viewing habits.

A question of authorship

When I was very young, the question of authorship was not front and center in my screen media experience. I was more concerned with the alphabet and learning to count; auteur theory would not enter my critical lexicon for quite some time. Films — and video games and TV shows — were just there, and I didn’t really think about who made them, let alone what their gender, class, or cultural background might be.  

This changed when my mother introduced me to the films of Alfred Hitchcock. That funny backwards-number-3-like self-portrait was burned into my memory the moment I realized a filmmaker could have a literal signature. I was thoroughly seduced by the concept of patterns across films, like books by the same author. I was ten years old, too young for Psycho and Vertigo, but ostensibly old enough for Rear Window, The Trouble with Harry and North By Northwest. This was my cinephile boot camp.

Growing up in Australia, it was many years later that I realized that so many of the domestically-made films my friends and I grew up with were in fact directed by women — Gillian Armstrong’s Star Struck (1982) and perhaps first and foremost, Jane Campion’s Sweetie (1989). This became a more recognizable pattern as I grew older, with Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987), Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary (1989), Rachel Talalay’s Freddy’s Dead (1991) and Penelope Spheeris’s Wayne’s World (1992) being significant instances of films that elicited a mild raise of the eyebrow upon discovering they were directed by women.  

At what point did I consciously register that women directing film was something out of the ordinary? Was it a flash, or a creeping, dawning awareness that filmmaking was a boys’ club and that the women who succeeded were the exception, not the rule?

The fundamental snap

In 2017, I co-curated a program called “Pioneering Women” for the Melbourne International Film Festival, along with its artistic director Michelle Carey. The program was dedicated to Australian women’s filmmaking of the 1980s and early 1990s: a rich, productive period that saw women like Campion and Armstrong amongst many others — including Tracey Moffatt, Clara Law and Ana Kokkinos — establish themselves as significant filmmakers working in Australia.

“Pioneering Women” launched only weeks before the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault blow-out magnified what is globally recognized as the #MeToo movement — the viral iteration of activist Tarana Burke’s 2006 anti-sexual abuse, assault and harassment war cry — into one of the most defining sociopolitical phenomena of our time.

While responses varied in visibility and intensity, the fall-out from these shocking allegations prompted me to take stock of my own history of normalizing awful experiences with awful men from my past, a process I found distressing and revealing in equal measure.

But having worked as a film critic since 2003, the overlap of the “Pioneering Women” project with #MeToo also triggered a near-instantaneous realignment of my relationship to film. I was reminded of Jane Campion’s words at Cannes in 2014. The only woman to ever win the Palme d’Or, in her capacity as Jury President she remarked:

Time and time again we don’t get our share of representation. Excuse me gentlemen, but the guys seem to eat all the cake. It’s not that I resent the male filmmakers. I love all of them. But there is something that women are thinking of doing that we don’t get to know enough about.”

As 2017 came to an end, I wrapped up my three-year stint as a film critic on Triple R,  a local community radio station in Melbourne, and I suddenly realized that beyond my professional duties at festivals, for the past year my attention was almost completely focused on writing projects about women filmmakers. There’s no pithy one-line summary to encapsulate the lesson of this accidental journey — like Campion, I didn’t resent male filmmakers, but I was fatigued by the ubiquity of their voices. Suffice to say, defamiliarizing myself with male filmmaking has shattered many of the concretized myths I took for granted about screen culture, both as a critic and a viewer.

Picking up the pieces

This is an introduction to a series of six columns where I will examine the shards of these myths in detail, in the context of a psychologically, emotionally and politically rebooted relationship with modern cinema.

I have a lot of questions: what does the “male gaze” mean in practical terms of watching films directed by women? Where does this leave women cinematographers and the idea of collaboration more generally? Is there an essentialist “women’s filmmaking” or, for that matter, an essentialist “men’s filmmaking”? If women’s filmmaking champions “strong female characters”, where does that leave women filmmakers who tell stories about men? And what does this tell us about male filmmakers who have told us so many stories about women? Where does “feminism” fit into all of it?

I’m less confident in my answers to these questions now than I was a year ago. But I think this a good thing. Maybe more questions, rather than answers, are what we should be seeking — that, I’ve discovered, is where the fun starts.

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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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