Earlier this year, as was widely reported, two federal agencies began an investigation into discrimination against women directors in Hollywood, an inquiry prompted by the ACLU’s own abysmal findings on sexism in the industry. Against this grim news, Anthology’s vast, globe-spanning program “Woman With a Movie Camera: Female Film Directors Before 1950” could not be better timed, bringing together names and titles long overlooked, forgotten, or due for rediscovery. The distaff pioneers assembled here began making their marks during cinema’s very earliest days; in the decades surveyed in the retrospective, women filmmakers made major contributions to genres as disparate as surrealism, ethnography, animation, and big-studio romance. The Anthology series advances what should by now be a self-evident truth: Women filmmakers aren’t a footnote in the history of cinema; they are its authors.
Born in 1873, Alice Guy-Blaché was, from 1896 (the year after cinema’s birth) to 1906, “probably the only woman film director in the world,” per Alison McMahan’s entry on the director for the invaluable Women Film Pioneers Project. Beginning as a secretary to Léon Gaumont, the trailblazing French producer, Guy-Blaché oversaw, whether as director or producer, hundreds of films (mostly one-reelers) until 1922, the year she retired from moviemaking. (In 1910, she and her husband co-founded Solax, a production company in Flushing and reportedly the largest pre-Hollywood studio in the U.S.) Completed in 1906, The Drunken Mattress — screening on September 23 with three other Guy-Blaché shorts and the 1995 documentary The Lost Garden: The Life and Cinema of Alice Guy-Blaché — stands as seven minutes of slapstick perfection. During a mattress-mender’s quick break from restuffing her employers’ bedding, a sot crawls into it, imprisoned in the fabric for half a day. The once-inanimate object becomes anything but, with the writhing and squirming of the alcoholic in the linens reaching absurd heights when Madame and Monsieur try to get some shut-eye.
Guy-Blaché’s compatriot and near-contemporary Germaine Dulac, who started as a drama critic and editor at various feminist publications, pursued more avant-garde modes of expression. The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928), a crucial early work of surrealist cinema that screens September 25, assails the hypocrisies of the church and the military through potent symbols and the slippery logic and chronology of dreams. A young, ectomorphic priest is taunted by visions of a stout brigadier general, the officer sometimes adorned in ecclesiastical garb. The greatest foe of this bony man of the cloth, however, is his own desire, curdled into rage by the clerical mandate against expressing it. His lust for a blonde woman culminates in his violently tearing off her shirt, her bare breasts soon covered by an emblem of an eagle, that enduring signifier of martial might.
The American auteurs showcased at Anthology include the paradigmatic Dorothy Arzner, the only female director in the Hollywood studio system from the late Twenties through the early Forties. The best-titled of her sixteen features, Merrily We Go to Hell (1932; showing September 24 and 26), explores a familiar theme in her work: marriage and its discontents. Typifying the no-good male dipsomaniacs who populate Arzner’s movies, Fredric March’s newspaper writer and aspiring playwright incorrigibly lushes and two-times in Merrily, prompting his once-adoring wife (Sylvia Sidney) to do some stepping-out of her own. They eventually reconcile, though the superficially joyful rapprochement — with Sidney’s mewls of “My baby! My baby!” to her spouse — suggests that more misery awaits them. (Arzner’s film is preceded by Zora Neale Hurston’s 1927–29 Fieldwork Footage, seven extraordinary minutes of excerpts from her research on African-American communities in Louisiana and Florida. The documentation, which features someone singing a few folk songs offscreen, is as thrilling to listen to as it is to watch.)
A crucial predecessor to Arzner — though one who’s too often been overlooked, despite her prodigious accomplishments — is Lois Weber, the first female member of the Motion Picture Directors Association. Her ten-minute film Suspense (1913), in which Weber does double-duty playing an imperiled mother, abounds with formal flourishes, stylistic innovations that intensify the viewer’s anxiety: a three-way split screen, reflections in a rearview mirror, expertly deployed close-ups. This taut short screens September 22 and 25 in a Weber program that also includes a brand-new restoration of Shoes (1916). Unsparing in its depiction of poverty and familial pathology, the hour-long melodrama stars a performer previously unknown to me but who should be as celebrated as a Gish sister: Mary MacLaren, playing a teenage shopgirl, a role (her first) that she imbues with devastating stoicism.
Another revelation is Edith Carlmar’s Death Is a Caress (1949; screening September 24 and 28), the first film from Norway directed by a woman and a fascinating, low-key noir. Centering on Erik (Claus Weise), a handsome mechanic who leaves his fiancée for Sonja (Bjorg Riiser-Larsen), an older, wealthier woman, the movie slowly, brilliantly subverts the genre to reach even starker conclusions than those found in, say, Double Indemnity. What destroys the desire-drunk couple, who eventually marry, isn’t a murder scheme or venal impulses, as is often the case in noir, but something much more mundane: the emotional sepsis that results from too many petty domestic squabbles. “Background and lifestyle got in the way,” Erik says in voiceover, leading to endless rows instigated by “a stupid detail.” In one of his final lines, Erik looks directly at the camera and says, “I don’t know” — a moment of uncertainty made even more ineradicable by the assuredness of the woman directing the scene.
‘Woman With a Movie Camera: Female Film Directors Before 1950’
Anthology Film Archives
Through September 28
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 20, 2016