This Film Series Undercuts the Macho Mythology of Seventies Moviemaking in America

BAMcinématek’s “A Different Picture” spotlights Claudia Weill, Joan Darling, Joan Micklin Silver, and the many other women directors who put their stamp on the New Hollywood era


On the rare occasions Claudia Weill’s 1978 film Girlfriends is written about, Stanley Kubrick comes up almost as much as the director herself. Movie pundits fall over themselves to mention that he once said he loved her work and couldn’t understand why it wasn’t more successful. A seal of approval from within the boys’ club of New Hollywood mavericks was probably the last thing Weill was looking for when she made this high-spirited indie about female relationships, so it’s telling that Kubrick’s been granted such authority to declare its significance. It underscores why the new series “A Different Picture: Women Filmmakers in the New Hollywood Era, 1967–1980,” at Brooklyn’s BAMcinématek, is so needed. Men like Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, and Paul Schrader are constantly credited with defining a generation of rebellious auteurs who broke free of the studio system to revitalize cinema in Seventies America. But BAM (the programmer is Jesse Trussell) is countering this narrative, bringing into focus the era’s sidelined female trailblazers through 42 of their titles. Their work stands against the brand of macho bravado in which such New Hollywood classics as Easy Rider reveled — and is all the more subversive for it. It’s fascinating, too, to discover their influence on much-beloved scenes of the future, whether it’s the fake-orgasms banter of 1977’s First Love, predating the iconic comic fodder of When Harry Met Sally, or the struggling artist–meets–awkward moments shtick that Girlfriends nailed way before the likes of Girls and Frances Ha.

The feminist slant of Girlfriends still feels archly fresh. Its nods to the casual sexism of the art world, as budding photographer Susan (Melanie Mayron) tries to land an exhibition — in one sequence, she meets with a condescending big-shot curator who has an arty shot of a woman’s crotch above his desk — feel timelier than ever in the wake of #MeToo. The movie also daringly handles the issue of abortion within marriage. Throughout, Susan’s comical navigation of romantic misadventures, from a bumbled one-night stand to a dalliance with her married rabbi, remain secondary to her core heartache — the moving-out of her roommate and closest friend, Anne (Anita Skinner), who finds her literary ambitions stifled by her new marriage and the onset of motherhood.

In contrast to the micro-budget origins of Girlfriends, First Love made Joan Darling among the very first women to helm a major Hollywood studio picture. Based on a story by Harold Brodkey, it’s described in the BAM program notes as a “bittersweet love story,” though there are uncomfortable incidences (stalking, verbal abuse) in its portrayal of an obsessed college student spurned by his more sophisticated girlfriend that bring to mind Kristen Roupenian’s recent, feverishly debated viral tale “Cat Person.” Softly lit sex scenes and a twee soundtrack sweet on Cat Stevens make this a diverting trip into what once passed for romance, while its derisive take on male ego (depending on how you read this peculiar coming-of-ager) ensures that female desire remains center stage.

From the mainstream end of the spectrum to the more radical: Killing Time (1979), by African-American director Fronza Woods, is an unforgettable ten-minute short plumbing the art of everyday horror. The scene is an apartment, in which a woman (Sage Brush) prepares to commit suicide. As she calculates how her death scene will look by trying out possible poses, a running gag develops that she can’t find the right outfit. Her monologue gives only vague clues of disaffection and neglect (“I’m not a cactus; I need a lot of watering”), and her whistling compounds the jarringly low-key tone. The nonchalant mood not only creates deadpan wit but also knowingly hints at a deeper truth: that the alienation of women of color from U.S. society had become surreally normalized.

Another revelation is Joan Micklin Silver’s Hester Street (1975), based on a nineteenth-century novella. Beautifully realized in black-and-white with a blend of wry humor and real yearning, its clear-eyed portrait of Jewish immigrants in New York’s Lower East Side conveys the community disruption wrought by the conflicting pull of tradition and assimilation. The latter proves as corrupting as it is seductive, as the marriage of the newly arrived Yankel (Steven Keats), who quickly renames himself Jake, and his less determinedly modern wife Gitl (an Oscar-nommed Carol Kane) unravels. Both pursue different means in adapting to a land of entrepreneurial (and romantic) opportunity.

The illusion of America as an idyll of freedom could not be more trenchantly undercut than in Attica (1974), Cinda Firestone’s documentary on the 1971 Attica Prison uprising. It’s a searing indictment of a jail system rife with routine power abuse: Inmates are utilized for cheap labor to prop up a post-slavery economy, and brutalized by a redneck prison-guard class who make their livelihood off the backs of marginalized criminals. The “need to feel like a human being” (to quote one interviewee) is conveyed with sincere, existential force time and again by former prisoners, who reflect on what caused them to unite and seize control at the New York prison to negotiate for improved conditions. State police took control, and by the end 33 inmates and ten hostages had been killed. (Media reports that prisoners had killed some hostages were later proved false; it was law enforcement, who came in shooting, who were responsible for the massacre.) The film was unavailable for three decades; the truth of the events was itself vigorously suppressed. Firestone, an activist whose rage pulses through every frame, grasps on to Attica’s injustice as a rallying call for political engagement.

In Three Lives (1971), Mallory, a woman in a very different situation than the Attica inmates, expresses related sentiments: “You really have got to face the fact that you’re a human being.” She’s speaking about how she became politically conscious and left her marriage to a careerist stationed in the Philippines, bored by a lifestyle that placed seven servants at her disposal and finding her ostensible comfort corrupt and devoid of meaning. The documentary, made by an all-female team and co-directed by second-wave activist Kate Millett, consists of a trio of candid autobiographical interviews with women who broke free from traps of socialization into more self-governed, purposeful existences at a time when the Women’s Lib movement was only just beginning. This exacting, doubt-ridden quest for self-realization — a decisive counter to life as an extension or tool of white patriarchy — is a bracing refrain throughout the manifold voices of “A Different Picture.”

‘A Different Picture: Women Filmmakers in the New Hollywood Era, 1967–1980’
Through May 20

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