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Streamers: Women Make Film. Also Men.

Marc Mohan looks at the alt.film world in which women directed movies, and chimes in on Charlie Kaufman's newest.


Nearly a decade ago, British documentarian and critic Mark Cousins completed his magnum opus, a 15-hour survey of cinema history called The Story of Film: An Odyssey. It was an idiosyncratic tour, a self-styled “road movie” that elevated the work of directors from typically neglected parts of the globe and subverted the dominant, Hollywood-centric narrative. Now Cousins is back, having apparently noticed something of a lacuna in his previous work, with the awkwardly titled but nonetheless fascinating companion piece, Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema.

Women Make Film comprises 14 one-hour episodes and is divided into 40 chapters, each dealing with a different aspect of the filmmaking process. Some are structural: “Openings,” “Introducing a Character.” Others are formal: “Tracking,” “Framing,” “Editing.” Still others are thematic: “Adult/Child,” “Politics,” “Memory.” Covering two or three of these topics per episode, Cousins illustrates them with a barrage of clips from films both celebrated and obscure, each of them directed by a woman. The narrators who speak Cousins’ words are all women, including Tilda Swinton, Jane Fonda, and Debra Winger.

Is there something slightly disconcerting about a man employing women to voice his thoughts on the work of female filmmakers? In the abstract, surely. But Cousins’ approach doesn’t involve any attempt to explore these directors as “women directors” per se. Rather, Women Make Film (I keep wanting to append a “Too, You Know” to the end of the title) positions itself as, despite its title, a survey of 120 years of movies that just happens to use only female-directed work to make its points.

Thus, nowhere in these 14 hours is there a discussion of the whys and wherefores of female exclusion from the ranks of directors, especially in America. Nor is there any pontification about possible ways that films made by women differ from those made by men. What societal and/or psychological factors are responsible for the even more extreme exclusion of women from genres such as action films, or Westerns, or science fiction. How romantic and sexual relationships are treated differently in films made by women than in those made by men? Do female-made movies avoid the male gaze that has dominated cinema since its inception or do they subvert it for their own purposes? Topics like these get little to no treatment—and that’s OK.

Instead, Women Make Film takes its place among other cinephiliac treats such as A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies and Slavoj Zizek’s A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (as well as Cousins’ previous series)—namely, documentaries that should be watched with a notebook close at hand so as to jot down the titles of the dozens of heretofore unseen films one intends to track down. That pleasant chore is even more intense in this instance, since so many of the 183(!) directors mentioned are unknown even in American film critic circles. (At least, they were unknown to me and I have a decent working knowledge of this stuff.)

The usual suspects are present, of course. In Hollywood history, they include Dorothy Arzner, Ida Lupino, Elaine May, and Katherine Bigelow, each a nearly singular instance in different eras) of a woman being accepted by the studio system. Internationally, auteurs such as Agnes Varda, Jane Campion, and Chantal Akerman represent. But the real finds here, at least for this viewer, were names such as Kira Muratova (Ukraine), Kinuyo Tanaka (Japan), Márta Mészáros (Hungary), and Larisa Shepitko (Soviet Union). Each of these women, with the exception of Shepitko, who died in a car crash at the age of 41, had extensive directing careers, earning international acclaim, yet their work (again, with the partial exception of Shepitko) is barely known in the United States.

The chauvinism of the American cinema world extends beyond a refusal to grant women equal access to the means of film production to include a disregard for great movies made by women the world over. While this tendency has slowly been corrected—Agnes Varda, for instance, is finally getting her due after being in the shadow of her male French New Wave colleagues for decades—there’s still a lot more to do. The dearth of women of color among the directors included here is testament to that. But Women Make Film, despite its cumbersome length and its overwhelming deluge of data points, is a big step in the right direction. Now if we can only get someone to produce a Márta Mészáros Blu-Ray boxed set…

Woman Makes Movies

On a related note, two lesser-known films by Dorothy Arzner, cited above, are currently streaming on the Criterion Channel. Both are excellent examples of pre-Code Hollywood filmmaking, when censors had yet to clamp down fully and movies were sassy, racy fun. 1932’s Working Girls uses a familiar trope (small-town sisters move to the big city in search of work and love) but imbues its female protagonists with agency and verve. The sisters, Mae and June Thorpe, fresh from Indiana, find work as a scientist’s assistant and a telegraph operator, respectively. They find love, potentially, with a saxophone player and a fancy lawyer. Notably, and without spoiling too much, one of the sisters loses her virginity and still gets a happy ending to her story. That’s the sort of thing that, after 1934, couldn’t happen in a Hollywood film for a long time.

Dorothy Hall and Judith Wood in Dorothy Arzner’s Working Girls

The other title, 1932’s Merrily We Go to Hell, couldn’t be advertised in some newspapers due to its risqué title. Its story is even more boundary-pushing for the time, chronicling the relationship between an alcoholic, aspiring playwright (Frederic March) and a kind-hearted socialite (Sylvia Sidney). When he takes up with a former flame, she declares an open marriage and vows to have affairs of her own. Again, not the sort of plot you’d encounter once the Production Code was instituted! These movies are notable because of their subject matter, but they’re entertaining because of their sparkling wit and engaging performances (especially by Sidney). And as an added bonus, the Criterion Channel has also made available Croatian documentarian Katja Raganelli’s wistful portrait Dorothy Arzner: Longing for Women, shot only months after the director’s death in 1980.

Man Makes People Uncomfortable

Considering the tone of writer-director Charlie Kaufman’s oeuvre, especially his last film, Anomalisa, it’s something of a relief to realize that the title of his latest, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, refers to breaking off a relationship, not ending a life. At least, well, mostly.

Kaufman has become American cinema’s clown prince of surreal misery, and here he doesn’t disappoint. At first blush, this appears to be less cosmically and formally ambitious than the philosophical Synecdoche, New York or the stop-motion animated Anomalisa. We open on an unnamed woman (Jessie Buckley) in a car with her boyfriend Jake (Jessie Plemons), on their way through a wintry landscape for her first introduction to his folks. Naturally, there’s awkwardness in the air, and her interior monologue tells us, right off that bat, that she’s not so sure about this whole thing (see title).

Once the couple arrives at Jake’s boyhood home, things take a turn towards the grotesque—imagine Meet the Parents as remade by David Lynch. Jake’s mom (Toni Collette) and dad (David Thewlis) are exactly the kind you don’t bring a girl home to. But, this being Kaufman, there’s more going on here than an exploration of the anxiety inherent in the situation. I don’t want to give too much away, but, in short, reality itself starts to warp over the course of dinner and dessert. Buckley’s character seems to become unstuck in time, to quote Billy Pilgrim, and eventually even unstuck from her own identity. It’s hard to describe without getting into specifics, but Buckley does a fantastic job of keeping her character centered amidst the metaphysical chaos.

Eventually, the couple head for home back in the city, but things only get weirder. There’s an enigmatic school custodian, an extended (and brilliant) discussion of the John Cassavetes film A Woman Under the Influence, a little bit of song and dance, and even a glimmer of hope. Ever since Kaufman shifted to directing his own screenplays, the results have gotten more introspective, less broadly humorous, and more willing to wear grief on their sleeves. His peak achievement as a screenwriter remains Being John Malkovich, while his peak as a director remains Synecdoche, New York. While I’m Thinking of Ending Things doesn’t rise to their level, it’s still a high point of this sadly truncated cinematic year.

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.