Women directors break out in 2009
In the film industry, the battle of sexes might better be regarded as a massacre in favor of the men.
This year, however, is arguably one of the most productive for women directors in recent memory.
At face value, the distinction âwomen directorsâ seems condescending â a âgood for youâ kind of backhanded compliment that suggests an imbalance between the sexes.
Such an imbalance exists, though it runs along the lines of opportunity rather than talent. The distinction between male and female directors is sadly necessary because Hollywood, through a long tradition of favoring men in the directorâs chair, has built the system up this way.
In 2009, five prominent women directors â one paired with arguably the most prominent American female screenwriter â have managed to put out four films in a diverse range of genres: war, romance, horror and biography.
Kathryn Bigelow, the director behind this summerâs critical darling The Hurt Locker, deserves real credit for rewriting the most masculine of genres: the war film. Bigelowâs daring dissection of the hard-wired mind of a bomb specialist in Iraq smashed open the genre in ways too numerous for this survey to list.
While thereâs still an entire season full of movies left to see this year, once the dust has cleared in January, Bigelow â aided by a supernatural performance from Jeremy Renner â might well remain the director of the yearâs best film. Barring an awkward violation of the Academyâs bylaws â the film was technically released in 2008 and nominated for a few Independent Spirit Awards this year â Bigelowâs potential omission in the Best Director category would be worthy cause for a riot.
Released locally last week, Bright Star marks an about-face from Jane Campionâs 1993 masterpiece, The Piano. The story of romantic poet John Keatsâ affair with a talented young woman named Fanny, Bright Star is a classic parlor romance of subdued lusts and intellectual flirtation â a far cry from the provocative sexuality of Campionâs The Piano and her underrated In the Cut. Campion also champions the notion of the woman as an artist, comparing Fannyâs free spirit and skill for fashion design with Keatsâ own beloved poetry.
Campionâs film is not quite great romance, however, as she opts to understate the passion and the visuals in general. This is an effective tactic for a parlor drama, but Bright Star lacks the explosive romantic tension and joy of Joe Wrightâs kinetic, beautiful version of Jane Austenâs Pride and Prejudice â certainly the best romantic film of the past decade.
For all its visual blandness, Bright Star is the most purely poetic film since the unfairly maligned romantic comedy Shakespeare in Love. Campionâs film revels in the romantic words of John Keats and, in a stunning and effective move, allows the credits to be consumed by a reading of an entire Keats poem.
Jenniferâs Body, directed by Karyn Kusama (Girlfight) and written by ultra-popular Juno scribe Diablo Cody, is currently unseen by me â and, unfortunately for the filmmakers, most of the country.
Cody and Kusamaâs film, which centers around a monstrous femme fatale, is apparently intended to be a subversion of the traditional female role in horror films. Although the film has been advertised as rife with camp and lesbian subtext, Jenniferâs Body has been subverted by the Hollywood marketing machine, and the appeal of the filmâs subtext is all but lost when the majority of its advertisements air in between penis enlargement ads and Girls Gone Wild spots on late-night Comedy Central.
Unfortunately, Cody is no stranger to being co-opted by Hollywood for its own purposes. Her beloved screenplay for Juno â which I found unbearably hip way before it was cool to say so â was certainly deserving of its Best Original Screenplay Academy Award, but it was easy to see the Academy salivating at the chance to appear open-minded by letting a dyed and inked former stripper into its boysâ club: something I call the âCrash Rule.â
Last, and possibly least, is the visually talented Mira Nair, whose forthcoming Amelia looks like a fairly standard biopic with a girl-power twist â the heroine is the famous pilot Amelia Earhart. Also on the slate is first-time director Drew Barrymore, whose Whip It stars the remarkable other half of the Juno dynamo, Ellen Page. Unlike Nairâs film, Barrymoreâs at least looks like it has a new and interesting angle, specifically girlsâ rollerblading.
Except for The Hurt Locker, the one element each of these films shares is the privileging of the female perspective. For cinematic artisans like Campion, Kusama â whose Girlfight is a modern classic â and Nair, their films are especially valuable for their realistic portrayal of women. The potential importance of the directorâs gender to a film is made apparent by these works, and complementarily of works by hyper-masculine directors like Guy Ritchie, Martin Scorsese and â going way back â Akira Kurosawa.
Something this meager list makes clear is that things need to change in Hollywood; more viewpoints need to be brought into the fray or else the industry will continue to stagnate. But Hollywood is an old stone not easily moved or eroded, and it is a wonderful and sad thing that just six prominent women artists would find their unique films released within the same year. It feels like laughable progress, but it is progress nonetheless.
John Wheeler is a senior majoring in cinema-television critical studies and East Asian languages and cultures. His column, âThe Multiplex,â runs Friday.