by B. Ruby Rich
from Film Quarterly Fall 2016, Volume 70, Number 1
The Risks of Being Female, Onscreen
Ghostbusters, as directed by Paul Feig and co-written with Katie Dippold, stars Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones as four buddies out to save the world, or at least New York City, from a paranormal menace. Set for a July 2016 theatrical opening, it reboots the franchise. But in one of the many blow-ups in this year of filmworld scandals, the announcement that Sony’s Columbia Pictures was extending its series through an all-female team of bad-ass ghostbusters set off an internet reaction: one million negative votes when its trailer debuted on the website and a nasty trolling campaign that was explicitly misogynist, vaguely disguised as a demand for fidelity to the original.
The Ghostbusters cast and crew responded with predictable comic sassiness in a wide-ranging New York Times conversation, pitched with savvy timing to the opening rather than the attacks, that discussed the internet bullies as well as the situation for women in the film industry.1 Andi Zeisler urged women to turn out for the film’s opening weekend and directed readers’ attention to the “sidelining of women as creators and subjects of movies. Manohla Dargis used her New York Times review to urge women to go on opening weekend.”2
But the vitriol directed at the very idea of women stepping into roles that had once been played by men was more than a little bit scary. Even Sony brass became uncomfortable with having “the most disliked trailer in YouTube history after a coordinated campaign by a group of mostly male naysayers” and “traced hostility toward Ghostbusters to a small number of fan sites that embedded the YouTube trailer. The studio found that a parallel trailer release on Facebook was overwhelmingly positive.”3
Ellen DeGeneres put her own spin on the brouhaha when she invited the Ghostbusters stars onto her show and then booked Hillary Clinton for the same date. In a way, the doubles act made sense: after all, Kate McKinnon has impersonated both Clinton and DeGeneres on Saturday Night Live. Nonetheless, the press reported hand-wringing in the Sony executive offices at having the movie hijacked for chick-flick appeal just as the studio was trying to get potential male viewers positioned to fill those upcoming movie seats. The studio’s Tom Rothman even commented on the booking: “All this attention is great, but I hope [Ellen viewers] realize that Slimer is not a registered voter.”4 Slate‘s Christina Cauterucci was having none of it. She commented on an anti-Ghostbusters tweet by Donald Trump, then repudiated Rothman’s attempt at deflection: “Sony would like to have it both ways—to bask in the feel-good vibes of lowest-common-denominator girl-power feminism while still soothing the inflamed egos of men who feel threatened by onscreen women with ray guns. The response to Ghostbusters reveals as much about the conservatism of contemporary Hollywood as it does about the entrenched misogyny that keeps women out of title roles and the White House.”5 By opening weekend, the tone of debate had shifted. Producer Amy Pascal was promising more of the same, for years to come. And Rothman had refined his pitch: “All that stuff has been great … The movie is a comedy, an entertaining comedy, but it is also now a real important part of the social conversation and you don’t usually get to do both of those things.”6
The Risks of Being Female, Online
Misogynist internet attacks became a subject in themselves, with a spiraling sequence of stories and events that centered on the last South by Southwest Interactive conference. First came widespread trolling—internet harassment and offline, real-world aggression—directed at women who wielded opinions or exercised power in the online universe and its subset of gamers, as exemplified by the infamous Gamergate incident that began in 2014 and earned its own hashtag, Wikipedia entry, and series of articles and reports appearing seemingly everywhere, from blogs to Time magazine.
By the time the light of attention illuminated the flagrantly misogynist posts, tweets, and websites, nobody was underestimating the seriousness of the matter. In a Time magazine article, the uber-mainstream Entertainment Software Association, described as “a U.S. video game trade association and sometime D.C. lobbyist group,” was praised for stepping responsibly into the morass: “‘Threats of violence and harassment are wrong,’ an ESA spokesperson told the Washington Post Wednesday. ‘They have to stop. There is no place in the video game community—or our society—for personal attacks and threats.’”7
In response to a year and counting of articles, debates, and ongoing concerns, the SXSW Interactive conference scheduled a pair of panels. One, titled “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Gaming,” was then cancelled due to online threats of violence if it were to be held.8
The cancellation naturally set off an uproar, to which SXSW responded by taking the matter more seriously. It organized a greatly expanded event, the daylong Online Harassment Summit, to bring women together in fifteen sessions with heavy security to assess the online universe, threats against them, and the impact of trolling. The mere fact of the Summit’s existence might have been a victory for women trespassing at boy-crazy SXSW Interactive—except that it was held in an entirely different venue and was so underattended (even with press filling half the seats) that reporter Kaitlyn Tiffany called it a Ghost Town.9 Too bad about that, since her report of the sessions is interesting and certainly applicable to other fields. Commenting on the “dearth of diversity in tech,” Tiffany quotes media activist Jamia Wilson’s statement that the platform can hardly be otherwise, since “the people who build online tools inform the tools.”
Girlpower, Some History
Her maxim calls to mind that other platform in Hollywood USA where a certain lack of diversity prevails. As the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission slowly pursues its investigation into hiring practices in the film industry, it is important to remember that this “imbalance” is nothing new. Before the ongoing investigation, before the Sundance Institute ever launched its own research project, before the Academy began to try to diversify its ranks, women had noticed. There had been earlier initiatives, with most of them duly noted in recent reports and histories—except one.
Fifteen years ago, in Santa Barbara, California, independent filmmaker Allison Anders convened a group of women at the Miramar Hotel to discuss the difficulties confronting women filmmakers and to brainstorm strategies. Two critics were also invited to that meeting in April 2000: Manohla Dargis and myself. The weekend was filled with spirited discussions and, yes, the inevitable gripes. The late Sarah Jacobson, a local San Francisco favorite whose premature death from cancer four years after the Santa Barbara gathering led to the establishment of a fellowship in her name, was a nonstop rabble-rouser there, pushing her DIY energy at a lot of women who instead wanted industry backing for indie projects. Maggie Renzie was also there: long known as John Sayles’s producer (and partner and, earlier, actress), she had just produced Karen Kusama’s Girlfight (2000), which had wowed audiences at Sundance, and there was hope she might be opening up opportunities for other women filmmakers, too. Allison Anders herself was a spirited convener, relating her own start under a mentorship with Wim Wenders and pushing to open up more opportunities for women filmmakers. She’d made five features over the past ten years; at the time, she was directing episodes of Sex and the City (today, she’s making films and television, and teaching at the University of California, Santa Barbara).
I wish I could say that the Miramar Women Filmmakers Summit issued some sort of manifesto but it did not. There was one follow-up action, though: a collaboration with the Guerrilla Girls that resulted in the infamous billboard that celebrated the Oscars with an anatomically correct version of the statue to match the race and gender of the overwhelming majority of its recipients. It just might be time for a Miramar 2.
Lest anyone pin the blame solely on studio execs, the latest study from Martha Lauzen’s tireless Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film points the finger at print and digital media, too, analyzing the Rotten Tomatoes website to discover that women account for only 16–37% of the critics, depending on how the numbers are crunched, whose thumbs up or down decide the fate of films and television programs/series—and therefore the career fate of women (and men) directors.10
Every June, cognoscenti head to the tip of Cape Cod for a low-key event grandly known as the Provincetown International Film Festival which, in a sign of its character, claims for its muse the town’s most famous summer resident, one John Waters, who first hitchhiked there from his native Baltimore over fifty years ago. The 2016 edition was announced as artistic director Connie White’s final year; a festival mainstay since the launch of the event in 1998, she has overseen an expanded curatorial team ever since and it was no surprise that the troops (including this writer) turned out for her farewell.
Three figures were honored this year: actor Cynthia Nixon, director Ang Lee, and producer Effie T. Brown. All three were in fine fettle and rewarded audiences with heartfelt remarks that went to the core of what this festival, which bills itself as “on the edge,” has always been about. Ang Lee had flown in from the 2016 Shanghai International Film and TV Festival, where he’d been speaking at a forum only a few days earlier. Conversing on stage with Waters—who laughed as he recounted one journalist’s description of the seeming mismatch as “arsenic and applesauce”—Ang Lee was characteristically modest and reflective. He reported himself exhausted after the labors on his new film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, based on the Ben Fountain novel of the same name. Pioneering a format on the far side of 3D, it was shown in a long special trailer at a trade show earlier this year through a dual-projector system capable of showing 3D/4K/120 frames per second. The short trailer at Provincetown showed a combination of razzle-dazzle and disorientation, effects likely to be heightened in the altered universe of its theatrical presentation of this story of a war hero popped into the middle of a Dallas Cowboys game. “To go from the battlefield in Iraq to that? I thought it must make him insane,” said Lee, after Waters had quizzed him about his penchant for gay stories.
Cynthia Nixon had just flown in from Atlanta where she’d been starring as Nancy Reagan in Rod Lurie’s Killing Reagan, set for a National Geographic TV launch in fall 2016. Referencing the Pulse massacre in Orlando, she told the crowd: “It’s been a difficult week. And after spending an entire month in 1981, I can’t tell you how happy it made me to arrive in this haven of Provincetown.” It must be Nixon’s year for “real” people: the fall also marks her star turn as Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion (Terrence Davies, 2016), which was already being touted for an Oscar nomination (by those writers who do such things in February) after its debut in Berlin. Any worry about Nixon being a diva after the insane fame of Sex and the City was groundless: she was refreshingly down to earth, and a total pro, having acted since she was a child and growing up in New York. At age nine, she’d appeared on the classic TV game show To Tell the Truth, where her mother worked. I was eager to question her about my old boss, Kitty Carlisle Hart, who was chairman of the board at the New York State Council on the Arts when I was there. Was she nice to you, I asked? And Nixon delightedly reported that, when she’d acted the part of an impostor on the show, “she voted for me!”
Effie T. Brown was the keynote speaker for the festival’s closing Gabrielle A. Hanna Provincetown Film Institute brunch that raises funds to bring women filmmakers for Provincetown residencies. She didn’t disappoint. Brown is a stalwart of the indie world and has produced or worked on many beloved films that explored, as she said, “people on the margins…being the other,” including But I’m a Cheerleader (Jamie Babbit, 2000), Stranger Inside (Cheryl Dunye, 2001), and Dear White People (Justin Simien, 2014). She has a long track record, yet what made her (in)famous was her appearance as producer on last season’s Project Greenlight and her smackdown of Matt Damon when he mansplained diversity to her.
Brown’s recounting of her own formation was fascinating, starting with her revelation of the television universe that shaped her as a “latchkey kid” growing up in the 1970s: every afternoon, from 3 to 7, Dukes of Hazard, Three’s Company, The Brady Bunch, Charlie’s Angels. No black people anywhere. And then, finally, a new television universe came along. But oops, it was Good Times, Fat Albert, The A-Team, The Cosby Show. “That was what we had.” Then, she dug into the works that had made her want to make films herself, starting with The Warriors (Walter Hill, 1979) and then with major props to James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) and Ridley Scott’s Aliens (1979), because Sarah Connor kicked ass, Ripley was amazing, and who didn’t want to be them. They were women in charge, they were doubted, it was a multicultural crew, and she was the last survivor. Then Brown wrapped up the history with a lesson: “If you don’t see it, you can’t be it…that shapes you, it shapes you.”
Finally back to Project Greenlight; well, perhaps not back there, since she didn’t particularly want to talk about the show that made her a household name (for houses that read Variety and Hollywood Reporter, anyway) and, in her view, made her nearly unemployable. You don’t go up against America’s hero, Matt Damon, and walk away unscarred. Luckily, filmmaker and industry force Lee Daniels offer her a job; Brown is now the Executive Vice President of Production and Development for TV and Film for Lee Daniels Entertainment. And the brunch got its happy ending.
The Return of the Greats
Let me flag two thrilling digital restorations and accompanying theatrical releases that both demand attention: Daughters of the Dust (Julie Dash, 1991), celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary, and Multiple Maniacs (John Waters, 1970), celebrating its forty-sixth. I am crazy enough to remember the launches of both and how they changed forever my sense of what film could be outside the contours of the same-old mainstream.
From Multiple Maniacs, I remember the shock of Divine’s persona, carnival act, murderous rampage, sexual assault by a giant lobster (really), and death by a posse of National Guard soldiers, all in glorious 16mm black and white on a micro budget. Waters raved in Provincetown that Criterion had restored his film so beautifully that it now looked like “a bad Cassavetes film.” The screening showed that it had lost none of its power.
From Daughters of the Dust, I still remember the breathtaking glory of a restored Gullah culture, the dreaminess of Dash’s approach, the sense of a whole new aesthetics, and the myth-making that has surrounded the film ever since. I remember the busloads of black women arriving at Film Forum in New York City to see the film, traveling from throughout the northeast for that first theatrical run. And I give credit to the Cohen Film Collection for its restoration and for the new publicity campaign that points to Daughters as the inspiration for Beyonce’s Lemonade and the filmmakers who directed its episodes.
The Autumn of Someone’s Discontent
As this is my first Film Quarterly coinciding with a presidential election in the United States, I cannot refrain from taking a moment. Is somebody out there working on a film about all this? About the insanity of a society cracking apart, fissures widening, wealth gaps growing, prison populations skyrocketing, student debt ballooning, evictions escalating, jobs shrinking … you know, the saga of the twenty-first century. Is there? Because I need those films. And perhaps you do, too, dear reader. After a summer of explosive news cycles, the police murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and the counter-attack in Dallas by delusional veteran Micah Xavier Johnson who killed five policemen, in a year of bodies snuffed out, of bombs exploding in Baghdad, hostages killed in Bangladesh, a coup and counter-coup in Turkey, a deranged killer in Nice, and the derangement of the Brexit [all events that transpired as this issue went to press] the challenge to film, television, and video media is clear: it is time to make a difference, and to explore urgently how to do that. Hollywood’s tentpole blow ’em up movies have gone on long enough, as have the indie world’s obsession with twee universes and micro-stories of privileged lives. I entered this field because of the difference that moving image media could make in this society, because of the power of cinema to effect people and circumstances. It is time to stand up and be counted, and FQ will try its best to play a part in analyzing and shaping today’s media universe as it, hopefully, evolves.11
And In This Issue
Chantal Akerman is the subject of this volume’s special dossier, co-edited by Ivone Margulies and myself, and with translations by Mark Cohen. A wonderful range of writers weigh in on Akerman’s enduring and wholly original cinema work, with contributions from scholars in the United States as well as the UK, France, and Brazil. As the introduction, or “unveiling,” goes into depth about these contributions as well as Akerman’s oeuvre, suffice it to say here that FQ is thrilled to have articles by Mateus Araujo, Cyril Béghin, Alisa Lebow, Barbara McBane, Laura Mulvey, and a new essay by Ivone Margulies herself. In addition to this wonderful lineup and their inspiring range of analyses, the dossier also includes three contributions for the archive: the publication of two screenplay monologues, previously unpublished in English, for Akerman’s La Chambre 2 (1972) and Le Déménagement (Moving Out, 1992) with new prefaces by Margulies; a “postmortem” bibliography by Regina Longo compiling writing on Akerman in the months since her death, including a selection of obituaries; and my own never-before-published interview with Akerman, transcribed from the Video Data Bank videotape of 1976 by Kate Horsfield.
Akerman’s career spanned so many phases, from early formalist and feminist work into musicals, comedies, documentaries, and multiscreen installations, moving restlessly from Belgium to France, to the United States and Israel, that one dossier can only point in fruitful directions and recall significant moments. No doubt her work will be studied for many years to come. At this moment, less than a year after her death, it is her decision to end her life so soon after completing the film about her mother’s last months that is shaping responses to her work. Perhaps that will not be true in the future. Then, perhaps there will be new scholarship on her love of musicals and her humor, both noted in essays here, or on her casting, so remarkable that it goes unremarked (yet eerily similar to Quentin Tarantino sometimes in how she would cast actors for the resonance of past roles), or her internationalism that turned her history of exile into a positive value: belonging nowhere, and so belonging everywhere.
Surprisingly, James Williams evokes Akerman in his own analysis of Mati Diop’s remarkable Mille Soleils (A Thousand Suns, 2013) and its threads of connection to the equally remarkable Senegalese classic, Touki-Bouki (The Hyena’s Journey, 1973) by the late Djibril Diop Mambety, her uncle. Setting both films in the context of Senegal’s political and cinematic history of the past four decades, Williams focuses on Mati Diop’s use of the original “fiction” film as a form of archival footage, only to play incessantly with the audience’s expectations of realness through such figures as Mory, the young protagonist of Mambety’s film who reappears as the central character, though a shadow of that former self, in the niece’s reworking. Taking into account Diop’s own status as a Parisian filmmaker and as an actor who has worked with Claire Denis, Williams examines her project through an aesthetic that refuses to separate fact from fiction in the form of cinematic time-travel she has created through duration, long takes, and extreme slowness, qualities which he, in passing, links back to Akerman.
FQ‘s regular columnists continue to respond to new work here. In Paul Julian Smith’s “Screenings” column, with a new letter from Mexico, there is a report on the new phenomenon of transgender documentaries that cover a range of perspectives and which he carefully unpacks in terms of their influences and appeals. In Amelie Hastie’s “The Vulnerable Spectator” column, there is a rumination and reflection on Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan (2015) that considers his body of work and this film in particular as part of (not a departure from) it.
Festival coverage in this issue looks east, thanks to Aga Skrodzka’s report from the goEast festival in Wiesbaden, Germany, which staged its sixteenth edition in April, at a pivotal moment in “East-West” relations. Full of praise for the festival’s offerings and for those who have run it with great dedication ever since its founding in a moment concerned with the European “unification project” incorporating former Communist countries, Skrodzka sees many films worthy of attention as well as cause for concern in the jury’s award decision.
The special “Page Views” section continues in this issue with Associate Editor Regina Longo’s conversation with Michael Boyce Gillespie about his new book, Film Blackness and the Idea of Black Film. In a far-ranging conversation, they discuss the films he has chosen to analyze, such as Chameleon Street (Wendell B. Harris, Jr., 1989), as well as the extrafilmic texts with which he puts them in dialogue, from Ralph Ellison to Manthia Diawara. He credits Mikhail Bakhtin for helping him to reframe the “racial grotesque,” and he uses the literary work of Chester Himes to think through Medicine for Melancholy (Barry Jenkins, 2008)—while also linking the film to the Mumblecore movement in indie film. As always, an excerpt from the book is available free for download on the FQ website.
There is news in the Book Reviews section, too. Chief Book Critic Dana Polan, who has ably covered the field for the past two years with a wonderful range of essays that have been immensely valuable in extending FQ‘s reach, has stepped down from the post. Thanks, Dana, for a job well done. With this issue, FQ welcomes Carrie Rickey into the post and into the pages of the journal. Longtime film critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Rickey is based in Philadelphia and has been a contributor in recent years for the New York Times, Indiewire, Truthdig, and others. Rickey’s debut review for FQ admiringly assesses Miriam J. Petty’s Stealing the Show: African American Performers and Audiences in 1930s Hollywood, assessing its important contribution to a revised view of American cinema in this era, with her reassessment of black characters in a complex relationship with both stereotypes and opportunities for subversion. Rickey points to Petty’s careful dissection of the color line in films of this era, where skin tone could dictate casting decisions, and finally her appreciation for the resilience of Hattie McDaniels, Louise Beavers, and others, in bringing dignity to the roles that were available as they continued to push for better.
Other reviews in this issue look at books by the German scholar Christine N. Brinckmann; by the British author Sophie Mayer and editors Laura Mulvey and Anna Backman Rogers; by Paul Cronin, Stephen M. Hart, Dennis Lim, Tamara Trodd; and by Dale Hudson and Patricia R. Zimmerman. This is a wonderfully expansive selection of volumes, and I for one look forward to reading them and catching up with some of the most exciting work on offer at the moment in the field. Thanks as always to book review editor Noah Isenberg for his expert stewardship.
2. Andi Zeisler, “Why Feminists Have an Obligation to See ‘Ghostbusters’,” Los Angeles Times, May 25, 2016. www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-zeisler-ghostbusters-feminist-hollywood-20160520-snap-story.html. See also Manohla Dargis, “Our ‘Ghostbusters’ Review: Girls Rule. Women Are Funny. Get Over It.” New York Times, July 10, 2016, at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/15/movies/ghostbusters-review-melissa-mccarthy-kristen-wiig.html?_r=0
3. Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes, “‘Ghostbusters’ Steps Right into the Hostility of Gender Politics,” New York Times, May 23, 2016. www.nytimes.com/2016/05/24/business/media/ghostbusters-steps-right-into-the-hostility-of-gender-politics.html
5. Christina Cauterucci, “Hillary Clinton, Ghostbusters, and Gender Politics Collide on Ellen,” in “XX Factor: What Women Really Think,” Slate, May 25, 2016. www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2016/05/25/hillary_clinton_ghostbusters_and_gender_politics_collide_on_ellen.html
6. Brian Porreca, “‘Ghostbusters’ Premiere: Amy Pascal Says New Franchise Will Be ‘Endless’,” Hollywood Reporter, July 10, 2016. See www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/ghostbusters-premiere-producer-amy-pascal-909624
7. Matt Peckham, “Fixing What’s Wrong with Gamergate Starts with You,” Time, October 16, 2014. http://time.com/3512862/fixing-gamergate/?xid=time_readnext
8. Caroline Sinders, “I Was on One of Those Canceled SXSW Panels: Here Is What Went Down,” Slate, October 29, 2015. www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2015/10/sxsw_canceled_panels_here_is_what_happened.html
9. Kaitlyn Tiffany, “SXSW’s Online Harassment Summit Was Just One More Place for Men to Ignore Women: Good Solutions Found a Small Audience,” Slate, March 13, 2016. www.theverge.com/2016/3/13/11215268/sxsw-2016-online-harassment-summit-wendy-davis-katherine-clark
10. Dr. Martha M. Lauzen, “Thumbs Down 2016: Top Film Critics and Gender,” Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, San Diego State University, June 2016. http://womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu/files/2016_Thumbs_Down_Report.pdf
11. See Thelma Adams, “Clueless in Manhattan: A Response to Variety Critic’s Face-Off With Renée Zellweger,” Observer, July 5, 2016, at: http://observer.com/2016/07/clueless-in-manhattan-a-response-to-variety-critics-face-off-with-renee-zellweger. Also see Jen Yamato, “Renee Zellweger, Margot Robbie, and Blake Lively Exposed to Hollywood’s Insidious Male Gaze,” The Daily Beast, July 7, 2016. www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/07/07/renee-zellweger-margot-robbie-and-blake-lively-exposed-to-hollywood-s-insidious-male-gaze.html