Don’t Cry, Resist! Movies From a Female Revolution
Posted May 1, 2018 5:49 p.m. EDT
There is an intensely moving scene in “Janie’s Janie” (1971) when its subject issues a de facto declaration of independence. “Before, I was my father’s Janie,” says this determined woman, who with grit and welfare checks is raising her six children alone in an abject corner of Newark, New Jersey. “And then I was Charlie’s Janie,” she says of her abusive husband. “Now I’m Janie’s Janie.” After a lifetime of being told by both men that she was “no good, no good, no good,” Janie has set herself free.
Directed by a collective, this powerful half-hour film is just one of 42 titles in the BAMcinématek’s revelatory series “A Different Picture: Women Filmmakers in the New Hollywood Era, 1967-1980,” which begins Wednesday. As ambitious as it is exciting, this series arrives amid a resurgent feminism that most recently has galvanized around the issue of sexual abuse. One of the critical fights in women’s liberation struggles continues to be for the right to be heard. As Rebecca Solnit recently wrote of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, the “revelations spurred a re-examination of who was audible and who mattered.” Put differently, who gets to tell our stories?
In movies, women haven’t often had that right, having been too often shut out — and shut up — on screen. And yet they have kept on making movies, speaking out and speaking up. “A Different Picture” makes this clear in a series that, selection after selection, is at once an act of cine-activism and of historical revisionism. It also corrects the fallacy about women in the movie industry during the period known as New Hollywood. Famed, and often uncritically fetishized, for its masterworks and swaggering machismo, this was the era that brought us some of the most illustrious male auteurs in history, including Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Altman and Hal Ashby.
“A Different Picture” expands on the familiar story of New Hollywood by focusing on overlooked filmmakers working in the mainstream as well as on a larger group working in the margins, including in documentaries, exploitation films and the avant-garde. The breadth of work is expansive and exhilarating, with titles as diverse as Stephanie Rothman’s “The Student Nurses” (“They’re learning fast,” reads a tagline for this swingy diversion); Cinda Firestone’s still-urgent documentary “Attica” on the prison uprising; and experimental movies like “Film About a Woman Who ...,” from the choreographer turned director Yvonne Rainer.
All these women serve as a corrective to the male-centric mythologies that often accompany discussions about film auteurs. As the series programmer Jesse Trussell said in an email, central to these myths is the figure of the “great artist as a diﬃcult bad-boy outsider, especially in this period of the sex and drugs and rock 'n’ roll ’70s counterculture.”
That auteurism has long been nearly synonymous with male directorial genius is partly because of the industry’s entrenched sexism, but it’s also a matter of those who anoint — and immortalize — these geniuses. “So much eﬀort has been spent lionizing and mythologizing this era,” Trussell said, “that work by an entire generation of women has been almost written out of history.”
Consider Peter Biskind’s entertaining 1998 book “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood.” Biskind doesn’t mention Barbara Loden (“Wanda”) and refers to Elaine May (“A New Leaf” and “Mikey and Nicky”) only in passing. He notes that May wrote “Heaven Can Wait” and also that she dated John Calley, a Hollywood power player. May deserved far better, of course, and not only because she was at that point one of only a few women since the 1920s hired to direct by a studio. “I pitched very hard,” her producer said, “that having a woman director would be of consequence.”
Although May repeatedly clashed with Paramount while making “A New Leaf” — she later sued the studio — the movie is flat-out great. In one of his best performances, Walter Matthau plays a bankrupt snob who schemes to marry a clumsy heiress and botany professor played with sneaky charm by May. Paramount took the film away from her, softening it (in her version, the Matthau character kills several people), but its genius remains. John Cassavetes was such a fan of May that he appeared alongside his frequent collaborator Peter Falk in her fantastic “Mikey and Nicky,” about a small-time hood in trouble who calls an old friend for help. To grasp how women and men are treated differently even in movie histories all you have to do is read about May. Her problems with Hollywood — she went over schedule, shooting miles of film — are legendary but rarely, if ever, are they framed as a matter of her auteurist prerogative, as they often are when male artists take on the Hollywood barbarians. (The author of a monograph on “The Godfather” — its director, Francis Ford Coppola, also famously fought Paramount — deems May’s three-hour cut of “A New Leaf” “un-releasable,” thereby siding with the studio, and describes her character as “homely” and Matthau’s as “an aging ‘gentleman.'”)
For the most part, the female directors featured in “A Different Picture” worked outside Hollywood, including in New York, where filmmakers like Shirley Clarke (“Portrait of Jason”) had long been part of an energetic counter-cinema. Claudia Weill’s wonderful “Girlfriends” was independently produced there (some of the money came from government arts councils) before it was picked up for distribution by Warner Bros. A great Melanie Mayron plays a photographer who faces loneliness after her female roommate moves out. In its insistent focus on a woman whose identity isn’t solely determined by her relationships with men, “Girlfriends” isn’t just thrilling — it’s radical.
Another New York story is Joan Micklin Silver’s “Hester Street,” a drama set on the Lower East Side in 1896 with a luminous Carol Kane as a newly arrived Orthodox Jewish woman whose assimilated husband has no use for her. Silver also wrote “The Frontier Experience,” an underseen 25-minute film directed by Barbara Loden set in 1869 Kansas. Loden plays a pioneer who — after her husband dies — fends for herself and her children. By turns awkward and elegant, the film is further evidence of a directing career that could have been. Loden — who until the recent resurrection of “Wanda” was often treated as a footnote in film histories — died in 1980 at 48.
Although some of the better-known movies in the series are available for home rental, others are not and remain outside the commercial mainstream. The number of shorts suggests the budget limitations that women often faced (and still do), the modest running times of their work — as well as their subjects — insuring a level of marginalization. In her crucial, depressingly topical 1976 documentary “From Spikes to Spindles,” Christine Choy focuses on activism in Chinatown in New York after allegations of police abuse; in the sweeping “Chicana,” Sylvia Morales examines another overlooked group, creating a chronicle of identity that begins with the Aztecs and wends its way to Los Angeles.
A handful of the titles were featured in the complementary 2017 BAMcinématek program, “One Way or Another: Black Women’s Cinema, 1970-1991.” “A Different Picture” gives you another chance to see films like Kathleen Collins’ “The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy” and Fronza Woods’ “Killing Time,” in which a woman poses in a bedroom while musing on death, her performative self-awareness conveying despair and absurdity. In “Fannie’s Film,” another of Woods’ must-see shorts, she juxtaposes images of white people in an exercise studio with an interview with a black woman, Fannie Drayton — designated in the film as one of the “invisible women” — who cleans that same space.
It is unclear if Woods intended this stunning film to be a brutal, brilliant allegory for women and film, but it’s impossible not to see it as such.
“A Different Picture: Women Filmmakers in the New Hollywood Era, 1967-1980” runs through May 20 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, 718-636-4100, bam.org.