Film

Direct Action: Film Forum’s ‘Genre Is a Woman’ Honors 100 Years of Female Helmers

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The word genre comes from the French term for “gender,” an etymology that’s especially salient in a kicky, wide-ranging two-week series at Film Forum that spans more than a century. Curated by Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan, “Genre Is a Woman” highlights what should be a well-known fact but is too commonly overlooked: that female directors, ever since the birth of the medium, have not limited themselves to the pink ghetto of romantic comedies and aspirational weepies. Distaff auteurs — beginning with cinema pioneer Alice Guy Blaché, whose The Pit and the Pendulum (1913) is likely the first-ever screen adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe — have made their marks in, among others, noirs, westerns, road movies, science fiction, and grindhouse, all types of films often thought of as the sole province of their male counterparts. “Genre movies” have actually been, to some degree, equal-opportunity employers.

The films of Dorothy Arzner, the only female director in the Hollywood studio system from the late Twenties through the early Forties, often focused on the glories and indignities women faced in the workplace, no matter their occupation. (All but Blaché’s movies in this 34-film retrospective were produced in the U.S.) The backstage musical Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), the penultimate of Arzner’s sixteen features, centers on the clashes between salty hoofer Bubbles (Lucille Ball), the headliner of a Broadway burlesque revue, and virtuous ballerina Judy (Maureen O’Hara), who serves as the “stooge” during the bawdy act with her incongruous en-pointe twirling. There are plenty of laughs in Arzner’s movie, especially during Bubbles’ ribald numbers, but Dance, Girl, Dance never loses sight of the important sacrifices — and necessary compromises — women make in pursuit of artistic careers.

By the late 1940s, the superb noir actress Ida Lupino — whose husky-voiced weariness defines titles like Jean Negulesco’s Road House (1948) and Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1951) — was growing restless, tired of standing around on set while, in her words, “someone else seemed to be doing all the interesting work.” In 1949, she formed Filmmakers, her own production company, with her second husband; over the next few years, Lupino — who preferred to be called “Mother” while in the director’s chair — helmed a handful of socially conscious melodramas. But she was just as adept in films about psychopaths, as is amply evident in The Hitch-Hiker (1953), Lupino’s finest work as auteur, which she also co-wrote. This taut desert noir — one with no femme, fatale or otherwise — tracks two buddies en route to a fishing trip in Mexico who unknowingly pick up a palsy-eyed murderer. The vast expanses of arid landscape, where captor and captives bunk for the night, are just as confining as the automobile they’re stuck in.

Wanda (1970), the sole feature by Barbara Loden, another actress-turned-filmmaker, likewise unfolds as a road movie that culminates in a dead end. Loden also wrote the film and plays the title role, a woman from deepest Pennsylvania coal country who abandons her husband and small children, soon taking up with an incompetent bank robber. Informed by cinema vérité and the rough-hewn aesthetic of Warhol’s movies, Wanda bears the rawness of its creator’s own memories of barely making it out of a bleak North Carolina town.

Premiering the same year as Wanda, The Student Nurses, directed and co-written by Stephanie Rothman, a onetime assistant to B-movie maestro Roger Corman, embeds stealth feminism within a superficially lurid RN-sploitation bedroom comedy. Libertinism and (mostly) progressive politics also distinguish Rothman’s Group Marriage (1973), focusing on a sexed-up sextet of straights determined to live outside heteropatriarchal norms. These movies, filled with dead spots, unforgivably corny dialogue, and, in the case of Group Marriage, some mild gay panic, are by no means as flawless as the bodies of the actors who appear in them. But they are transportingly beautiful, suffused with elysian Southern California light and scenery.

The Los Angeles of Kathryn Bigelow’s apocalyptic Strange Days (1995), on the other hand, is a stygian cesspool of VR junkies who hang out at clubs with names like the Retinal Fetish. One of five movies by the director in the Film Forum series, Strange Days takes place during the final 48 hours of 1999, though one of its main plot threads, involving savage white LAPD patrolmen, reflects the real-life trauma of the ’92 uprising in that city after the Rodney King verdict. Bigelow’s movie, co-written by Jay Cocks and James Cameron, her ex-husband, boasts one of the most unexpectedly charismatic couplings in sci-fi: Ralph Fiennes’s Lenny, a disgraced vice cop now peddling disks that allow users to get off on the rush of others’ extreme experiences, and Angela Bassett’s Mace, a chauffeur and bodyguard of unimpeachable integrity. Their last scene together — a steamy lip-lock — is perfect, a utopian moment at the end of a hyperkinetic dystopian project. But this elating closing segment points to a distressing, continuing offscreen reality. In the two decades since Bigelow’s film came out, Bassett, like so many phenomenally talented African-American actresses, has been denied the career she deserves. “Genre Is a Woman” celebrates many undersung movies while also reminding us of the imbalances that remain on either side of the camera.

‘Genre Is a Woman’

Film Forum

June 3–16