Crit­i­cal mass

For most of 20th cen­tury, film writ­ing – in the US, at least – was a girls’ girls’ girls’ world where the so-called “ladies who wore white gloves” reigned in queenly fash­ion. But things have changed ut­terly, writes Tara Brady

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

IN THE beginning was the mo­tion pic­ture and the mo­tion pic­ture was with woman and woman was with the mo­tion pic­ture. We tend to speak of the his­tory of film in terms of its found­ing fathers – DW Grif­fith, Au­gust and Louis Lu­mière, Ge­orge Méliès – but the medium was con­ceived and nur­tured into be­ing with a com­plete con­tin­gent of par­ents.

There are many rea­sons why early film pi­o­neers such as Dorothy Daven­port Reid and Lois We­ber were down­played in the of­fi­cial record, but mostly it comes down to an­ti­quated turn-of-the-cen­tury at­ti­tudes and prej­u­dices; the great Aus­tralian film-maker Lot­tie Lyell had presided over dozens of projects as a writer, ed­i­tor and star be­fore she was of­fi­cially cred­ited as a di­rec­tor in 1931. Oth­ers never re­ceived their dues at all.

Still, for the new Thor­oughly Mod­ern Mil­lies of the 20th cen­tury, film was a land of op­por­tu­nity less bound to pa­tri­ar­chal struc­tures and stric­tures found else­where. In Europe, the US, Ar­gentina, Brazil, Egypt and In­dia, si­lent cin­ema was shaped by fe­male film-mak­ers: women such as Dorothy Arzner, Ruth Ann Bald­win, Mrs Ge­orge Ran­dolph Ch­ester, He­len Gard­ner, Eli­nor Glyn, MarieLouise Iribe, Hanna Hen­ning, Fatma Begum, Gi­u­lia Cassini, Karin Swanström and Olga Pre­o­brazhen­skaya – to name just a few.

Th­ese women do not rep­re­sent a his­tor­i­cal lin­eage cob­bled to­gether af­ter the facts; they were gen­uine ar­chi­tects of the medium; Alice Guy Blaché in­vented and cod­i­fied the nar­ra­tive film; MGM’s Mar­garet Booth de­vel­oped the clas­si­cal fluid edit­ing style that con­tin­ues to de­fine stu­dio out­put.

In early Hol­ly­wood, women worked as film ed­i­tors and cine­matog­ra­phers and in ev­ery sec­tor of the in­dus­try. Be­tween 1916 and 1923, women in the film busi­ness were more pow­er­ful than in any other line of work; they wrote half the films re­leased in 1920; in 1923, they owned more in­de­pen­dent pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies than men did.

Nowa­days, things look very dif­fer­ent. Ac­cord­ing to last year’s an­nual re­port from Dr Martha Lauren, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre for Study of Women in TV and Film at San Diego State Uni­ver­sity, in 2008, women com­prised a mere 16 per cent of all direc­tors, ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers, pro­duc­ers, writ­ers, cine­matog­ra­phers, and ed­i­tors work­ing on the top 250 gross­ing films in the US. Just 9 per cent of US direc­tors are women; only 12 per cent are writ­ers.

Where did all go wrong? The Hays Code? The McCarthy purges? The so-called “butchi­fi­ca­tion” of cin­ema that be­gan in the stu­dios in the 1940s didn’t help. The ma­cho swag­ger of the French nou­velle vague and the blus­ter­ing stand-offs be­tween rid­ers and bulls in post­clas­si­cal Hol­ly­wood were of vi­tal im­por­tance to the de­vel­op­ment of cin­ema. But no one could have pre­dicted that swag­ger would, in due course, de­fine ev­ery other movie.

Sim­i­larly, it would be churl­ish and stupid to chas­tise a vir­tu­oso film-maker such as Steven Spiel­berg or a pi­o­neer like Ge­orge Lu­cas for priv­i­leg­ing spec­ta­cle over nar­ra­tive in the 1970s; a world without Jaws, af­ter all, is an in­con­ceiv­ably gloomy no­tion. But their ef­forts to re­store the mati­nee to its for­mer glory would kick­start an un­in­tended revo­lu­tion.

Clock­wise from above: film critic Lotte Eis­ner with the ‘ma­chine-man’ Maria from Fritz Lang’s Metropo­lis; film-maker Alice Guy Blaché; film critic Pauline Kael. Be­low: Avatar

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