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Exploring Bias In Film Theory: Why Aren't More Female Directors and Filmmakers of Color Considered Auteurs?

Screen Shot 2015-11-04 at 4.22.45 PM.pngAgnes Varda

Hollywood moves in familiar patterns, with habits so regular that even the most disinterested moviegoer knows the drill. Summer is for blockbusters, fall is for Oscar-bait, and late winter is for the bombs, those sad monstrosities that the studios try to shuffle into oblivion with as little fanfare as possible. However, for viewers of a certain stripe, who prefer international titles and experimental features over superhero flicks, the year isn't measured in typical seasons. For these cinephiles and film fanatics, the stretch from the first sun-drenched Cannes dispatches to the last wind-chilled nights of Sundance is the true centerpiece of the year in film. While most viewers might be drawn to a new release by an appealing star or the familiarity of a franchise, the chatter around these film festivals is distinctly different.

"Did you see the new Todd Haynes?"
"I'm going to the Hou Hsiao-Hsien tomorrow."
"The new Gondry? Not his best."

This auteurist approach to understanding film is a defining aspect of highbrow festivals, and frequently dominates the conversation and criticism around so-called "Serious Cinema." However, despite the popularity of auteur theory as a lens through which viewers can read a film, it has also been criticized for the way that it has often erased women and people of color from the cinematic landscape.

Auteur theory emerged in France in the mid-twentieth century, based on the idea of the director as the author a film. It was developed by film theorist Andre Bazin and critic and filmmaker Alexandre Astruc before further blossoming in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma in essays by a group of upstart film fanatics, including Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, who would go on to put their theories into practice as the mavericks of the French New Wave. While the word "auteur" often conjures images of self-consciously artistic cinema, the Cahiers critics frequently discussed the theory in the context of the dream factory of Golden Age Hollywood, reading the imprint of directors' distinct artistic personalities and fixations in seemingly-formulaic genre pictures, elevating figures like Alfred Hitchcock, with his recurrent motifs of frigid blondes, mistaken identities and necrophilia, from "vulgar showman" to serious artist. To them, Hollywood's Joseph L. Mankiewicz and serious-minded Danish ascetic Carl Theodor Dreyer could be seen as equally artistically valid.

Iconic critic Pauline Kael was an early critic of the theory as applied in English and American criticism, reserving particular vitriol for critic Andrew Sarris, who originally popularized the theory for American audiences in The Village Voice. In her essay "Circles and Squares", published in Film Quarterly in 1963, Kael says, "The auteur critics are so enthralled with their narcissistic male fantasies....that they seem unable to relinquish their schoolboy notions of human experience." She goes on to question, "Can we conclude that, in England and the United States, the auteur theory is an attempt by adult males to justify staying inside the small range of their boyhood and adolescence -- that period when masculinity looked so great and important but art was something talked about by poseurs and phonies and sensitive-feminine types?"

Gendered critique of the theory continues, with contemporary film writers like Melissa Silverstein, founder and editor of Women and Hollywood and artistic director of the Athena Film Festival, an annual film festival highlighting women's leadership that takes place at Barnard College, citing inherent biases: "In general, I have minimal interest in the whole discussion of auteurs because it leaves women out. Women are just beginning to create a body of work that lets them into the conversation. And there is a lack of respect for women's work whether it stars men or women because there is a lack of respect for women's visions."

Screen Shot 2015-11-04 at 4.16.22 PM.pngElaine May

Film history, like all history, is not a static thing, but is in a constant process of re-assessment and re-writing. While the popular conception of film history is still dominated by mammoth male figures -- Welles, Godard, Fellini, Bergman, et al. -- there have been encouraging signs in recent years of the narrative expanding to include more and more female filmmakers. In some cases, this has manifested itself in the rehabilitation of neglected careers, like that of Elaine May. The sharp director of The Heartbreak Kid and screenwriter of The Birdcage and Primary Colors first rose to prominence as half of a brilliant comedy due with Mike Nichols. While the latter went on to be enshrined in film history for works like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Graduate, May's directing career was cut prematurely short after the failure of her notorious Dustin Hoffman-Warren Beatty comedy Ishtar, for which she was unfairly and disproportionately blamed. However, within the past several years, May has been rehabilitated as a critical darling, with The New Yorker's Richard Brody lauding her as "one of the great geniuses of the American cinema" and Criterion's online release of her Peter Falk and John Cassavetes-starring Mikey and Nicky, which Brody has called"the great gangster movie of the nineteen-seventies" and "a welcome corrective to 'The Godfather'."

You could argue that cinema's delay in recognizing May as a great director is due, in part, to the fact that like other female directors such as Amy Heckerling or Nancy Meyers, she worked in commercial cinema, rather than the more self-consciously serious and highbrow modes of independent or art cinema. However, critic Stephanie Zacharek of The Village Voice -- who objects to auteur theory primarily on the grounds of being overly simplistic ("To me, the auteur theory is a way of trying to break film down into manageable chunks to understand it. And who wants film to be manageable?") -- has found that the commercial film stigma is often applied unequally. "Even if we're just talking about male [commercial] filmmakers who have come to prominence since the 1970s -- Scorsese, Tarantino, Spielberg, De Palma, Nolan, Fincher -- we feel very comfortable discussing their individual styles, or at least their specific approaches to filmmaking," she says. "But you don't hear a lot of people discussing the films of, say, Sofia Coppola or Kathryn Bigelow in the same way, even though each, by this point, has a very distinctive voice."

International female filmmakers have fared slightly better, facing fewer growing pains in their process of ascending to the top ranks of historically significant auteurs. Soviet master Larisa Shepitko, who left behind a small but stunning body of work before her premature death at age 40, in 1979, has gained attention since the Criterion rereleases of her films The Ascent (1966), and Wings (1977). Meanwhile Czech filmmaker Věra Chytilová's madcap Daisies has been rightly acknowledged as one of the most distinctive works of the Czech New Wave, cementing her place in film history. (Her early short "Ceiling" recently appeared on a double bill with Roman Polanski's "Two Men and a Dresser" in the Museum of Modern Art's "Home is Best" series.)

jeanne-dielman.jpgA still from Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

Perhaps the most notable example of a lionized female filmmaker whose recognition, influence, and space within the narrative of film history only continues to grow, is the great, recently-passed Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman. Akerman's 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, is regularly recognized as one of the most important works of cinematic history. The formally exacting, punishingly long work records in uncompromising detail the rote daily routine of a single mother over the course of three days, from domestic duties to the prostitution with which she supports herself and her son, and culminates in a shocking act of violence. Reverence for the film has only continued to grow in recent years (undoubtedly aided by the Criterion Collection's exquisite 2009 release), and critics have consciously worked to recognize her towering place in the story of cinema. In a recent Twitter exchange, Rolling Stone writer David Erlich noted that Akerman made Jeanne Dielman at the remarkably young age of 25, prompting film writer Kristen Sales to respond, "petition to replace this narrative with the 'orson welles was only 25 when he made citizen kane' narrative." Ever active, and unflaggingly artistically ambitious, Akerman's last film, the documentary No Home Movie, a document of the last days of Akerman's Holocaust survivor mother, earned rapturous responses and was one of the few female-helmed films presented at this year's New York Film Festival.

The outpouring of tributes after Akerman's tragically premature death (she was only 65 years old) on October 5th illustrated -- in their reverence, intensity, and sheer quantity -- just how enormous her presence is in the cinephile consciousness. As touching as the responses were, the reverential mourning was also a stark reminder of just how unusual Akerman's position is. Besides French New Wave favorite Agnès Varda, you'd be hard-pressed to think of another female filmmaker of Akerman's generation who would receive such universal recognition of greatness.

While it is clear that reading cinema history and the modern cinematic landscape through the lens of auteur theory has minimized the role of women, the most pressing question is: why?

Prominent indie film fixture Ry Russo-Young, director of films like Nobody Walks and You Won't Miss Me and a performer in The Color Wheel and Hannah Takes the Stairs, recognizes the collaborative process of making a film, but asserts, "I absolutely believe films reflect the perspective and vision of the director." However, she feels that romantic ideas about directors are distinctly gendered.

"Historically and often critically," she says, "the director's role has been fetishized into a stereotype: the lone, uncompromising man with a brilliant creative vision. As a woman growing up with this cliche, I have a voluntary distaste for it because it's the same white male genius thing -- it excludes everyone else and other perspectives. A quick Google search of 'filmmaker auteur' and I find seven terrific white male filmmakers, but not one woman or person of color. And even when we think about The French New Wave, Agnes Varda is often left out of that conversation, which is a shame because she's brilliant!"

Along with the gendered auteur archetype, another possible explanation for women's absence in this approach to cinema is the auteur theory's emphasis on a filmmaker's body of work. In order to recognize the idiosyncrasies of taste, style, and thematic preoccupations that make a director's work distinctly his or her own, it is helpful to have several films to reference, to see which elements occur again and again. Further, there is something particularly satisfying for the dedicated cinephile about crafting a neat narrative out of the arch of a filmmaker's career, as when we discuss Fellini's ever-deeper dive into his own id as he moved from realist dramas like La Strada to surreal, hyper-theatrical extravaganzas like Juliet of the Spirits. As filmmaker Josephine Decker, director of Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (another female director who has found an enthusiastic advocate in Richard Brody), explains: many female filmmakers simply don't have bodies of work hefty enough to demand auteurist readings. "I think there are a lot of women who make one incredible film and then maybe just don't have the opportunity to make another," she says.

According to Decker, there are several reasons why female filmmakers might produce smaller bodies of work than their male colleagues: "I think the women who become famous directors get famous later in the game than men do, generally. I think Sofia Coppola and Lena Dunham are huge exceptions, and I think it made a really big difference that both of them had parents who were artists. Because being an artist as a woman is not necessarily nurtured." Beyond the lack of encouragement, Decker also identifies the difficulty of balancing family and the rigorous demands of filmmaking: "Being a woman in my early thirties who really wants to have kids, I keep thinking, 'Wow, I'm really glad I got these two movies done.' Because I'll maybe make one more, then have to take a few years off....I think it's very difficult for women to develop a body of work because of family pressures, and also family desires."

Whatever its shortcomings, however, auteur theory remains an appealing and popular way of imagining cinema, particularly that of the high art variety. While the popularity of the theory does not appear to be waning any time soon, it is possible that it is being applied in more imaginative ways, and that notions of who qualifies as an auteur are expanding to make room for more diverse figures.

BFA_1446671924_1718518.jpgAva DuVernay[Photo by John Salangsang/BFA.com]

More and more contemporary female filmmakers are garnering spots in the cinematic pantheon: French directors Catherine Breillat (Abuse of Weakness, Fat Girl) and Claire Denis (Bastards, Beau Travail) are staples of serious international festivals, while established auteur Jane Campion (Bright Star, The Piano) has found recent success on television with the stunning Top of the Lake. Despite the historically male-heavy programming of the New York Film Festival, the Film Society of Lincoln Center has done invaluable work in recent years for the visibility of serious female filmmakers with their filmmaker residency. Since its inception three years ago, two of the residents have been women: Fish Tank director Andrea Arnold in 2013, and this year's Athina Rachel Tsangari, whose film Chevalier is featured in the festival. (The 2014 resident, Argentinian director Lisandro Alonso, also offered a welcome departure from the frequent Euro-centrism of serious cinema culture.)

Alongside this promising progress, resistance and unequal opportunities remain, particularly for women of color. "The real tricky thing," says Russo-Young, "is that much of this [biased] thinking is completely unconscious and subliminal and exists in women and men, so it's not a simple fix." However, as the internet has opened up the critical landscape to more and more voices, many women are highlighting the work of female filmmakers and combatting male-centric views of film history. Silverstein's Women and Hollywood is an invaluable source for information about women in commercial cinema, while British film magazine Little White Lies' recent "100 Great Movies By Female Directors" series, compiled by female and male critics, provided a breathtaking alternative cinematic history.

One of the most outspoken advocates for reevaluating the inclusivity of the narrative of film history is Selma director Ava DuVernay, who was passed over for a Best Director Oscar nomination, even as the film she directed was nominated for Best Picture. Empire writer Eric Haywood said of DuVernay in a Tweet, "I think the idea of [Ava DuVernay] boldly & competently directing men is what upset the Academy more than anything." Russo-Young agrees, stating, "I doubt Auteur theory is to blame for sexism and racism within the industry, but, as a society, we still associate control with men. The notion that a woman has the power and even the confidence to have complete control over an artistic process as complex and multifaceted as filmmaking is still foreign to us." However, DuVernay is actively working to reshape ideas of what a director looks like, not only in her own work as a director, but also with her distribution company Array, which supports the work of women and artists of color. Similarly, Silverstein insists that it is not criticism and historical evaluation that will raise the profile and power of female filmmakers: "The way to correct the representation of women is for people to hire women. It's that simple."

The act of filmmaking is becoming more and more accessible with every passing day. Cameras are more widely available than ever and anyone with an Internet connection can share their vision of their own unique universe with untold numbers of viewers, from next-door neighbors to strangers an ocean away. Critics and historians certainly have a responsibility -- they play an essential role in raising the visibility of women in the cinematic landscape. Most important, however, is that women continue to contribute to the medium, until their presence is too great to be ignored.

Go forth, women, and create.

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