Women’s Work


Nancy Savoca is one of a kind—a female director who carved a niche for herself in the Amerindie boys’ club by making four theatrical features in 10 years. True, Allison Anders has made five (her fifth debuts at Sundance this week), but numbers are not the whole story. Anders is not nearly as subtle and assured a filmmaker as Savoca.

Savoca’s first feature, True Love, won the grand prize at Sundance in 1989. The glory, however, went to another film in competition that year, Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape, credited in almost every inventory as the film that put Amerindies on the mass-culture map. And while Soderbergh’s movie has more flash and perversity (meaning that it’s sexier) than Savoca’s, True Love depicts a specifically female experience that had never before been quite so sharply limned in an American feature film. It’s the experience of a young woman raised in a conservative community who behaves as she’s expected to until she realizes that the deck is overwhelmingly stacked in men’s favor and that the desires she acts on are not her own. That lightning flash of recognition is what connects Annabella Sciorra’s bride in True Love, Lili Taylor’s wallflower in Dogfight (Savoca’s only studio film), Tracey Ullman’s sheltered wife and mother in the remarkably magic-realist Household Saints, and Rosie Perez’s workaholic in The 24 Hour Woman, Savoca’s latest film.

But unlike Savoca’s earlier bittersweet films (which all screen at AMMI this weekend), The 24 Hour Woman is a flat-out comedy of jackhammer speed and decibel level. And nothing testifies so well to Savoca’s dexterity as her ability to find variety and modulation within this hyper and seemingly chaotic mise-en-scène.

Perez plays Grace Santos, the producer of a tacky cable morning show titled The 24 Hour Woman. When Eddie (Diego Serrano), the host of the show who’s also Grace’s husband, casually announces on air that his wife is pregnant, the ratings skyrocket. By the time Grace is lying in a hospital bed trying to figure out why she’s supposed to be ecstatic that a yappy newborn daughter is gumming her breast, the show has gone network. It’s Grace’s big break, but does she want it, or does she want to stay at home with her kid? And if she quits work to stay at home, how will she be able to afford to feed the kid organic applesauce rather than supermarket garbage? Unlike her assistant (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), who has to persuade her husband to stay home with their three children, Grace can afford a full-time baby-sitter. But leaving her daughter with a stranger, however highly recommended, just adds another layer to Grace’s guilt.

Of course, Grace tries to do it all, which leads to terminal exhaustion and the constant feeling that whatever she’s doing she should be doing something else. And Eddie’s no help even though he thinks he’s the perfect working parent. “You get to have everything, Eddie. You get to have a kid. You get to have a career. It’s unfair. It’s fucking unfair,” Grace shrieks, as she barges onto the set of her own show, firing real bullets in her husband’s general direction.

Unlike the disingenuous and hideously sexist Stepmom, where no one even considers the possibility of Ed Harris taking a time-out from his law practice to care for his children, The 24 Hour Woman zeroes in on the fact that, even in seemingly equitable households, it’s still the mother who feels most responsible for the kids (and most guilty about the time she spends away from them). Savoca finds half a dozen ways to show that Grace is always being pulled in at least two directions at once (it’s not just Perez’s lurching, yo-yo moves, but the way the camera and the editing mime the internal and external forces that jerk her around). The 24 Hour Woman is a tour de force of barely controlled hysteria that’s as funny as it’s insightful. The only pity is that the audience that might enjoy it most won’t have the time to see it until it’s out on video.

The 24 Hour Woman is the opening-night attraction in “The Feminine Eye: Twenty Years of Women’s Cinema,” an international series that jams nearly two-dozen feature films, some of them by world-class directors, into 10 days. There’s something here for almost every taste—from Fran Rubel Kuzui’s blithe teenage cult-classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Kira Muratova’s brilliantly disjointed The Asthenic Syndrome, in which the psychological paralysis afflicting both female and male characters is inseparable from the dissolution of the Soviet Union on the eve of perestroika.

When critics whine that there are no films today like the films of the ’60s, I always respond that you can’t have the films of the ’60s without the politics and culture of the ’60s, and that the aspect of the ’60s I don’t miss is the almost absolute hegemony of white male artists. And that while Godard is in a class by himself, I’ll take Chantal Akerman, Claire Denis, Agnieszka Holland, and Jane Campion any day over Truffaut, Bergman, Fellini, and Antonioni.

Denis and Campion are represented here by their first features which, while immensely talented and appealing, pale in comparison with their later films. Denis’s Chocolat is based on her memories of growing up in West Africa as the daughter of French diplomats. It explores the relationship of power and “the gaze” when race complicates the picture. Distinguished by oblique camera angles and eliptical editing, Campion’s Sweetie turns family life inside out to show the suffocating effect of a schizophrenic daughter on her seemingly normal sister.

Akerman’s Histoires d’Amerique, reputed to be her least successful film (it wasn’t available for screening), is a compendium of stories from the Yiddish press recounted by Jewish performers and filmed in various New York locations during the late ’80s. If you’ve never seen an Akerman film, this is probably not the place to begin, but I’m glad of the opportunity to fill in the gap.

An unsparingly bleak and powerful film, Holland’s Angry Harvest probes the relationship between Poles and Jews that figures crucially in the filmmaker’s own life. Set in Poland during the Nazi occupation, it’s a two-hander about an Austrian Jewish woman who escapes from a train on the way to the death camps and a Polish Catholic farmer who hides her in his basement and becomes emotionally and sexually involved with her. Differences of class and religion, plus the power play implicit in the captor/captive situation, fuel a violent sadomasochistic attachment. Brutal but remarkably lucid, Angry Harvest lays bare the dynamics of Catholic anti-Semitism and the erotics of hatred and contempt.

Ning Ying’s On the Beat follows a squad of cops as they make their nightly patrols of a Beijing neighborhood, rounding up scofflaws and confiscating illegal pets. A fictional film with a cast of nonprofessional actors, On the Beat has the feel of urban ethnography. Ning’s deadpan, but unmistakably caustic, script and direction capture the contradictions between the communist ideal, the bureaucratic state, and everyone’s pell-mell desires.

This is a series with very few clunkers. Among the other not-to-be-missed films: Moufida Tlatli’s Tunisian mother-daughter melodrama The Silences of the Palace; Marleen Gorris’s brilliant, radical-feminist courtroom drama A Question of Silence; Julie Dash’s hauntingly beautiful African-diaspora tale Daughters of the Dust; Marta Mezaros’s stinging critique of the Hungarian communist state Diary for My Children; and Ulrike Ottinger’s Joanna d’Arc of Mongolia, memorable for its snowy windswept vistas and for the last images of Delphine Seyrig recorded on film.