Tag Archives: women

What is one to do?

“I did write for a while in spite of them,” says the narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” “but it does exhaust me a good deal — having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition.” Writing as a woman is a dangerous act. Gilman knew it, and I suspect Lucy Beatrice Malleson knew it, too. Malleson’s breakthrough as a writer came in her late twenties, when she began publishing mysteries under the pen name “Anthony Gilbert.” Ostensibly this was done to maintain her privacy and avoid the appearance of capitalizing on her uncle Miles’ recent fame. But it’s hard to imagine that the financial and professional advantages of a man’s name didn’t factor into this decision.

1941 saw the release of the “Anthony Gilbert” novel The Woman in Red. A few years later, under the auspices of Columbia Pictures, screenwriter Muriel Roy Bolton adapted it into what director Joseph H. Lewis would later call “a damn near perfect script.” My Name Is Julia Ross premiered in November of 1945. The film opens in rain-soaked London, Malleson’s lifelong home. Nina Foch plays Julia Ross, an unmarried woman behind on her rent and desperate for a job. Tipped off by a newspaper ad, she nabs a plum secretarial position with a rich widow and her grown son. But overnight, this dream job becomes a nightmare: the family and their servants drug her, kidnap her, and install her in a locked bedroom at the rear of a country mansion overlooking the sea.

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Alice Guy-Blaché and Beyond

From Photoplay: Grace Cunard (April 1916) and Elsie Jane Wilson (February 1918)

Earlier this year, I conducted a series of Google searches where I typed in “Germaine Dulac” followed by “Leontine Sagan.” Since those are the names of two major female filmmakers—best known for The Smiling Madame Beudet (1922) and Mädchen in Uniform (1931), respectively—my plan was to uncover other women who were their contemporaries behind the camera. I found far more than I’d expected. I turned my findings into a series of tweets, and now I want to turn those tweets into something a little more solid and in-depth.

Dozens of women flourished as directors of silent films, and the vast majority of them are forgotten today. Much of their work is undistributed or lost, and the preservation of their legacies is further hindered by the “great man” bent of critics and historians. The two women whose names are most commonly cited in film history classes, Alice Guy-Blaché and Lois Weber, are relegated to footnote status: “Oh, and women were working then, too.” Thankfully, some scholars have fought to counter this forgetfulness. The Women Film Pioneers Project (WFPP), for example, is a database initiated at Columbia University that organizes a mountain of research on the women of silent cinema. (“They were not just actresses,” explains its mission statement.) Much of the information here was found in their annals.

Below I’ve written about 15 women, spread across seven countries, who directed movies between the 1910s and ’30s. Many of them started out as actresses, and the majority were also married to filmmakers. Most of them are profiled at the WFPP as well. Admittedly, these are only the scantest of biographical outlines, but then this is intended to act primarily as a naming of names. If I write down the name of a woman who lived and died before we were born, and you read it, then you’ve thought of her. You’ve remembered. It’s a start. To borrow a phrase from Andrew Sarris’s (very male) The American Cinema, these are “subjects for further research.”

From the May 1917 Photoplay

  • Ruth Ann Baldwin (1886-19??) started out as a screenwriter and directed two features, A Wife on Trial and the western ’49-’17, both of which starred her husband Leo Pierson and were released in 1917.
  • Grace Cunard (1893-1967) worked as an actress for decades, beginning in serials at Universal. Her directorial career spanned from 1913 to 1921; her two features bear the pulpy titles The Purple Mask (1916) and The Woman of Mystery (1920).
  • Marie Epstein (1899-1995) had an expansive career, much of it in collaboration with either Jean Benoit-Lévy or her famous brother Jean. Her (often co-)directed features were released between 1927 and 1938. Later in life, she worked alongside Langlois at the Cinémathèque.
  • Mary Field (1896-1968) worked for years making documentary shorts on social or scientific subjects. After World War II, she went over to the BBC. She directed a single fiction film, the “quota quickie” Strictly Business (1931).
  • Eloyce Gist (1892-1974) worked with her husband James to make a pair of features, Hellbound Train (1930) and Verdict Not Guilty (1933), intended primarily for exhibition in Black churches. She’s the subject of a restoration effort by academic and filmmaker S. Torriano Berry.
  • Anna Hoffman-Uddgren (1868-1947) “made five films 1911-1912,” says Swedish film scholar Fredrik Gustafsson, “but four are lost. The one that remains is a filmed play, Strindberg’s The Father. Between Hoffman-Uddgren and Mai Zetterling in the 60s only five women got to direct feature films in Sweden and only one film each.”
  • Lottie Lyell (1890-1925) was the long-time collaborator and romantic partner of fellow Australian film giant Raymond Longford. She wrote and co-directed one (presumed lost) film with him, The Blue Mountains Mystery (1921).
  • Cleo Madison (1883-1964) directed and often starred in a couple dozen films between 1915 and 1916, out of which only two shorts (Eleanor’s Catch, which is included on the Kino DVD of Weber’s Hypocrites, and The Power of Fascination) survive today.
  • Paulette McDonagh (1901-1978) was an Australian filmmaker who collaborated with her sisters Isabella (an actress) and Phyllis (a producer and production designer) to start McDonagh Productions. They made four features and a handful of documentary shorts between 1926 and 1933.
  • Elvira Notari (1875-1946) was a major figure in the early Italian film industry. She co-founded Dora Films with her husband Nicola and directed dozens of films between 1911 and 1929, including the then-controversial melodrama ‘A Santanotte (1922).
  • Ida May Park (1879-1954) was married to director-producer Joe De Grasse, who filmed many of her screenplays. She directed a number of films between 1917 and 1920; the two that survive are Broadway Love, starring Lon Chaney, and Bread (both 1918). While she was on set in February of that same year, she spoke to Photoplay’s Frances Denton about her career:

  • Olga Preobrazhenskaya (1881-1971) worked as both an actress and a director, the latter often in collaboration with Ivan Pravov. Her most acclaimed film remains Peasant Women of Ryazan (1927). (Another female filmmaker from Russia was Elizaveta Svilova [1900-1975] who was the wife of Dziga Vertov and helped edit Man with a Movie Camera. She directed several documentaries between 1944 and 1953.)
  • Esfir Shub (1894-1959) pioneered the use of preexisting footage in documentary filmmaking, beginning with her Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927). She helped her colleague Eisenstein shape his own theories of editing. (This past April, she was ballyhooed in Sight & Sound’s “The World of Silent Cinema” column, so perhaps she’s starting to receive the attention she’s due.)
  • Tressie Souders (1897-1995) wrote and directed one film, subsequently lost, entitled A Woman’s Error (1922). She was, like Flames of Wrath (1923) director Maria P. Williams (1866-1932), based in Kansas City, Missouri, and both were among the first women of color in the country to work as filmmakers.
  • Elsie Jane Wilson (1885-1965) was an Australian actress and the wife of actor-turned-director Rupert Julian before she became a director herself, making several features between 1917 and 1919. Three of them survive. She was, per the WFPP’S Michelle Koerner, one of the “Universal Women,” like Ruth Stonehouse (1892-1941), another actress who directed one-reelers during the same time frame.

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Porn for Women: because women don’t like sex

This morning – by which I mean this evening, because a night of paper-writing has confused my sleep schedule – I read the new XKCD, as I do every Monday, and found myself confused. This was, of course, because I’d mercifully never been exposed to the horrors of Porn for Women. Ashley directed me to this recent Happy Bodies post, and I was on my way. So: what is Porn for Women? The easiest answer is, It’s really, really stupid. It’s a website that assumes that the biggest turn-on for women is, to quote Randall Munroe, “hot, clothed guys cooking, doing laundry, and vacuuming.” And has lots and lots of pictures and captions about exactly that.

Where to start talking about what’s wrong with this picture? Usually, it wouldn’t be worth wasting time over, except that it’s a nice little object lesson in the stranglehold of absolutist gender roles. Ostensibly “reclaim[ing pornography] for the rest of us,” it’s 1) not actual pornography, unless you have some extremely specific fetishes and 2) full of generalization, after generalization, after generalization. Also, can you say condescending? God, it’s like one giant jewelry commercial! The smug, obnoxious expressions on these men’s faces practically scream, “You’re a woman, so you’re really easy to please and flatter!” Christ, it’s called “Porn for Women,” not “Porn for Lobotomy Patients”!

Let’s take a quick look at some of the nausea-inspiring imagery this site provides.

God, fighting preordained gender roles is such an uphill battle. This website is ostensibly showing how men should act toward women, but their suggested course of action is to treat all women like perpetually pregnant, dainty, retarded flowers, all the time. Also, from the way he’s looking up from his coffee, it looks like the woman in question has just stumbled out of bed. Maybe there’s some sort of Stepford Wives ruse going on here? Or maybe this is Coraline 2, and he’s the Other Husband? Did I already say, “Can you say condescending?” Because… condescending!

The way this is written and designed, it feels like the creators of this website didn’t think women wanted men to treat them well so much as behave like they’re totally emasculated. This isn’t porn for women. It looks more like a mid-’70s Mad Magazine cartoon about the effects of Women’s Lib. Something else that angers me about this website: it assumes a proper course of action for men in relationships with women, based on yet more assumptions about what women like. It also treats men who follow these guidelines like they’re doing something heroic. “Wow, listening to your significant other’s desires or interests? You deserve a gold star!”

Hell, I wouldn’t want to go “NFL playoffs” in the first place, but I wouldn’t particularly want to go to a crafts fair either. And what if the woman who this “porn” is being directed at doesn’t like crafts fairs? Too bad, because she’s a woman? And what about the postcard where the shirtless man says, “As soon as I finish the laundry, I’ll do the grocery shopping. And I’ll take the kids with me so you can relax”? Wouldn’t it be a little more pornographic if the shirtless man said he’d drop the children off somewhere so they can “relax” together? But far be it from me to question Porn for Women’s universal applicability to all women.

If you see fit to visit the website, don’t miss their quiz. Each question has three totally transparent options, which amount to 1) he’s a housework-doing, gift-buying demigod, 2) he’s flawed, and 3) he’s a narcissistic, puerile troglodyte. Because it’s not like men behave different ways at different times. As if they’re, oh, people. Yet despite how little actual humanity this website tolerates in men, it’s funny how man-centric is. The emphasis is entirely on the man (’cause God knows lesbians don’t exist!) performing all these selfless acts, with the assumption that the passive female watching him will experience pleasure. These “pornographic” men are so insistently thoughtful and generous that it’s oppressive. Because isn’t that what women want? A grinning, chore-loving family man who’s dead inside?

Normally a website like this wouldn’t be worth as much attention as I’m giving it, but I think it’s a great example of how obnoxiously restrictive so many conventional views of gender are. Either he’s a normal man, or he’s this nonexistent “porn star” dream man who wants to do housework and cook! Though he still doesn’t care what you think. Oh, God, no. Could you imagine that? Like a man and woman, talking to each other about their own thoughts and feelings, communicating what they want through language? That’d be too much. Instead, men wishing to please their women should toss on an apron, light a scented candle, and throw that woman in the bath while you fix something with an Italian name. Also, tell her how much you care about her. Forced kindness is the key to every woman’s heart. (Because their locks are all exactly the same. And unlocking them means they have sex with you.)

Note: for actual porn for women (and men and queers and whomever) please feel free to click any of the options in the Alt Smut section of the blogroll. —>

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Women as animals: Kahlo and Cat People

The Little Deer by Frida Kahlo

This is a painting by Frida Kahlo from 1946 that I encountered in a book the other day. I think it’s very pretty and it raises a lot of interesting thoughts in my head. I guess the first few are thoughts like, Why is she a deer? as well as the inference that this is about herself being a victim. I love how she’s standing up straight, with a neutral expression on her face, bleeding. And how dead and ominous the forest and background look. I don’t have much insightful analysis to do here, but I wanted to incorporate this into a blog because this painting just struck me, as much as of Kahlo’s work has. Struck me in an unusual way, maybe in the part of me that feels sympathy, or the part that distinguishes between human beings and animals. The book I was reading mentioned that she paints herself as a male deer, with antlers and testicles. I don’t know too much about her biographically, but I wonder if she saw herself as some kind of gender outlaw. 9 arrows, piercing her flesh. Lost in the woods with a branch under her hooves. And that mesmerizing unibrow, always the most memorable element of Kahlo’s appearance. Who would shoot that many arrows into a deer like that, anyway? Maybe it’s a riff on St. Sebastian.

The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna

According to Wikipedia, St. Sebastian has received the cultural status over the centuries of a gay/religious icon. Taking Kahlo’s own bisexuality into account, maybe this is significant. I don’t really know. All I know is, I saw this picture in a book and it struck me. A woman’s face – and not just any woman – on a deer pierced with arrows and bleeding. It’s a very eerie, even upsetting painting. She looks like she’s in pain but not begging for pity.

Aside from looking at random paintings, I haven’t been up to much intellectually speaking or otherwise. Classes are at end and we’re in that twilight season between scholastic pursuits and running off to be united with my distant lover. But here’s something worth discussing.

The film is Cat People (1942), the first work of producer & master of horror Val Lewton. I realized today that it’s probably one of my favorite movies and one of the best horror movies ever made. Once you’ve watched it, it has a grip on you (kind of like that painting above). And it’s probably no coincidence the two works I’m discussing today involve treading the line between human and beast. It’s fertile ground; it has been since the days of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and before that. But that’s a broad topic and I won’t go into it now. Cat People attains a sort of pulp horror perfection. It’s a cheap movie – in fact, that’s part of the point – that plays with lights and shadows, bouncing through the water of a public pool at night, or along a desolate street where a woman walks alone, and turns it into pure fear.

Much of this is courtesy of Nicholas Musuraca, a cinematographer whose work went back and forth between horror (The Ghost Ship and the brilliant The Seventh Victim, other Lewton productions) and film noir (Cat People director Jacques Tourneur’s other masterpiece Out of the Past and Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night); this flexibility on Musuraca’s part, I think, demonstrates the kinship between the noirs of the early ’40s and Lewton’s style of moody urban horror. Cat People could very well be a film noir. Except its femme fatale, big surprise, turns into a cat and mauls people. A few months ago, I wrote a review of the film for this issue of the Carl, and summarized the plot like so: “boy meets girl. Girl is afraid she’ll turn into a giant cat. Boy cheats on girl with other girl. Girl turns into giant cat (or does she?).” It’s a simple premise emerging from vague dreams of dark and foggy Serbia, whence the cursed heroine Irena emigrates. (Serbia here is as good as Transylvania or Latveria or fill in your random eastern European country.) And we start out with a beautiful picture of American heterosexual normalcy until, well, Irena’s secret inbred something starts to catch up with her. We’ve got the classic scene where a feline stranger in a Serbian restaraunt addresses Irena’s as “sister” and disappears. The film is so rich with quasi-Freudian psychosexual confusion, more than enough to match the haziness of the lighting.

I’m going to bed now (it is 4 am, after all), but I highly recommend you watch Cat People. I want to see it over and over again. It’s a subtle, fascinating, seriously scary movie and I love it. The monster is the most sympathetic character, played by the cute, vulnerable French actress Simone Simon (who played another kind of femme fatale in Renoir’s La Bête Humaine [1938]), lost and alone, beholden to the chaotic emotions and powers brewing inside her. If you’re interested, Cat People is currently on YouTube here (though the fuckers won’t let me embed). Watch and be drawn into the strange and frightening nightmare which Lewton, Tourneur, and Musuraca create, as it gradually enfolds Irena and carries her off.

And pleasant nightmares to you, too.

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