book review by Elizabeth Abele
In her seminal work, A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf wrote of the difficulties in constructing a feminine literary history, and of the sense that the few acknowledged women writers were "anamolies," unrelated to each other and without much connection to the "real" masculine literary tradition.
The St. James Women Filmmakers Encyclopedia: Women on the Other Side of the Camera, edited by Amy L. Unterburger, presents beautifully-designed, substantial proof that women filmmakers represent a definite presence within the film industry, forming a network of shared history, traditions, aesthetics, and challenges. As Gwendolyn Audrey Foster writes in the foreword:
Women were written out of history as active participants in the production and creation of film, film movements, special effects, the star system, the studio system, independent and experimental forms, and genres. It seems as if historians were primarily interested in women in front of the camera as actors and sex objects. Creative women, however, were very much participants in the history of filmmaking (xiii).
Foster points out that women were actually more prominent in film production during previous decades than they are todaywhich parallels the greater box office clout that film actresses once had. It has become "natural" that producers and directors are generally men, and the significant achievements of Mary Pickford, Dorothy Arzner, Anita Loos, Jeanie Macpherson and Alice Guyto name only a fewcome as a surprise. How have women lost such ground as filmmakers?
The good news that the Women Filmmakers Encyclopedia presents is the number and range of women filmmakersfrom mainstream to independent, from Hollywood to Senegal. What is disheartening in reading the well-developed entries is how few feature films contemporary directors have made, particularly when compared to their male counterparts, or their female predecessors. Whatever the huge difficulty behind becoming a feature film director, it seems to be an even greater challenge as a woman to remain a director of feature films. Despite the earlier critical success of directors Susan Seidelman, Donna Deitch, Joyce Chopra, and Claudia Weill, they appear to have directed exclusively for television during the past decade. Of Elaine May, Robert Pardi writes: "The assurance of May’s first two films has never been recaptured," referring to Mike Nichols as her "more successful, less inspiring former partner" (274). Rob Edelman is more pointed with Allison Anders:
Anders’ career is at a crossroads. Will she be able to come up with a commendable follow-up to Gas Food Lodging, or will history prove her a one-shot artist, a footnote among women filmmakers? (16).
Luckily for Anders, she has been able to demonstrate with the evocative Grace of My Heart (1996) that she still has ammunition; and her most recent effort Sugar Town was well received at Sundance. But Edelman’s point is well taken: many of the directors listed in Women Filmmakers have less than five films to their credit, and their reviewers either acknowledge that the early promise has not been fulfilled or express hope that it still will be. Now of course, you can go to any movie guide and find plenty of male directors who made a few films a decade or so ago and "disappeared"but then in most cases they wouldn’t rate an entry in a one-volume encyclopedia. Each women filmmaker is so precious that it becomes tragic to lose any to the personal and professional hurdles they face.
I am less faulting Women’s Filmmakers than I am trying to read the implied history behind the separate entries. There appear be rare situations where women filmmakers do thriveas in the case of European directors Lina Wertmuller, Mai Zetterling, Agnieszka Holland, and Agnes Varda, who have managed to be both prolific and critically successful. But more of the accounts seem to present a struggle, a frustration, or even a lack of sustained interest. Philip Kemp notes Kathryn Bigelow’s long struggle to bring her Joan of Arc biopic, The Company of Angels, to screen: "Few current directors are better placed than Bigelow to give us a fresh take on the woman who most famously trespassed on sacrosanct male territory." In Strange Days, set in December 1999, Bigelow placed a film marquee reading "The Company of Angels," as her personal wish for the future. Ironically, Joan of Arc comes to the big screen this Decemberbut directed by Bigelow’s former executive-producer Luc Besson who hijacked the project as a vehicle for his soon-to-be-ex-wife.
The challenges that women face in having sustained careers as filmmakers may explain both the volume’s inclusion of some "part-time" filmmakers, and the exclusion of other emerging filmmakers. (Unfortunately I do have to guess as to the criteria for inclusion in this volume since none is provided.) Under the "part-time" filmmakers, I am including women who are famous for other accomplishments, including Jodie Foster (the volume’s cover girl), Melanie Mayron, Diane Keaton, Maya Angelou, and Oprah Winfrey. Foster’s entry notes the inordinate attention paid to Foster’s maiden effort, gracing the cover of Time for Little Man Tate. Though Winfrey’s influence in entertainment is unquestionable, her classification as a "filmmaker" appears to be based on her ability to green-light and produce Beloved (1998)despite the fact that a number of other actresses have produced films and/or have had the clout to get difficult pictures made. Maya Angelou’s role in How to Make an American Quilt (1995) is notedthough Australian director Jocelyn Morehouse is not.
Jocelyn Morehouse represents the category of "emerging" filmmakers, whose careers have missed the notice of the compilers. Canadian Patricia Rozema (I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, 1987; When Night is Falling, 1995) and former television director Mimi Leder (Peacemaker, 1997; Deep Impact, 1998) also missed the editor’s notice. Though the volume does list women producers, they represent a definite minority so that their selection seems random: why Dawn Steel and not Kathleen Kennedy; why Oprah Winfrey and not Demi Moore or Elizabeth Hurley?
These questionable inclusions/exclusions point to some predilections within the volume: 1) a preference for directors over producers and writers; 2) a preference for film directors who move to television, over television directors who move to film; and) a preference for American directors over other nationalitiesthough I hasten to add that the volume has made a noticeable effort to present women from a wide variety of cultures. The underlying problem may be that to present the potential contribution of women to film, the criteria for inclusion becomes so low (e.g. Melanie Mayron’s directing of The Baby Sitter’s Club, 1995) that Unterburger has had to rely on the arenas with which she has the most knowledge.
Despite my desire to have a better handle on Unterburger’s definition of a "woman filmmaker," this is a valuable, though relatively inexpensive, resource. It presents through its thoughtful essays women’s individual contributions to film in context, profiling both filmmakers who have had significant careers, as well as those who have been unable to sustain the quantity of work that would bring them to the attention of most critics.
I hope that there will be future editions that will address some of the unevenness between those profiled, as well as be able to include new work by women. The next few months will see the release of new films directed by Diane Keaton (Hanging Up, written by the Ephron sisters), Audrey Wells (Guinevere, from her screenplay) Patricia Rozema (Mansfield Park), Martha Coolidge (Introducing Dorothy Dandridge on HBO), Allison Anders (Sugar Town), and Angelica Huston (Agnes Brown), as well as films produced by Elizabeth Hurley (Mickey Blue Eyes) and Winona Ryder (Girl, Interrupted). (But please boycott Besson’s The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc!). In addition, it would be great to see in future editions the inclusion of select essays or at least a bibliography of critical writings about women filmmakers, to answer some of the questions about women in film that the individual entries evoke.
I congratulate Amy Unterburger for providing a solid resource from which a genealogy of women filmmakers could be drawn. She has unapologetically presented both the consequential contributions of women to film, as well as what they have been unable to attain. Perhaps there will be no female Stephen Spielbergs until a woman has independent financing and a studio of her own.
The St. James Women Filmmakers Encyclopedia (edited by Amy L. Unterburger) is now available from Visible Ink Press. Trade paperback edition. 568 pages. Suggested list price: $29.95.