STATE OF THE UNION
This was the year of girls on American television. There was the literal Girls, New Girl, and Two Broke Girls, as well as The Mindy Project. These all boast women as showrunners and creative driving forces: Lena Dunham, Liz Meriwether, Whitney Cummings, and Mindy Kaling. If the shows themselves range in quality (guilty pleasure? critical darling? ugh?), the force of their presence in 2012 was undeniable. But where are the American films directed by women? Kathryn Bigelowâ€™s Zero Dark Thirty makes a late entrance in December, but otherwise theyâ€™ve been few and far between this year. Those television shows all happen to be comedies, and three of the four above-mentioned women are also actors. It seems that room has been made in entertainment for self-propelling dynamos who write, direct, and star in their sitcoms. But what about the women whoâ€™d rather be behind the camera? Why arenâ€™t more women directing films?
In summing up the yearâ€™s â€śbest,â€ť I try to include women directors whenever possible, but scarcity is an aggravating fact. Itâ€™s a bright year when Nicole Holofcener (Please Give) or Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right) release a film, and Iâ€™m eagerly waiting on whatever Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone) and Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff) will do next. There were a few strong releases this year, including Sophia Takalâ€™s Green, a woozy drama about jealous lovers, and Lynn Sheltonâ€™s clever sibling rom-com, Your Sisterâ€™s Sister, with Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt gamely matching Mark Duplassâ€™ improv skills. Both of these films made brief appearances, but unfortunately, neither ignited attention or conversation the way I hoped they would.
The end result is that, in this pissing contest of an election year, the most iconic images of powerful women came from politics. Television can keep its girls; Iâ€™ll take Hillary Clinton texting and Michelle Obama flexing her Linda Hamilton guns. These images tell a much more interesting story about women and power than girls eating cupcakes in a bathtub.
THE A WORD
Auteur theory comes initially from the French critics, most famously FranĂ§ois Truffaut, who wrote for influential film journal Cahiers du CinĂ©ma. From their mid-century vantage point, they had an at-the-time novel perspective on American and Hollywood directors, arguing that some of those directors, rather than being commercial cogs in the machine, were actually the filmâ€™s authors, overcoming the industrialized, mechanical nature of filmmaking to imprint their work with a distinct style. Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris (who died this year, RIP) brought auteur theory stateside, elaborating on it in essays and in his book The American Cinema. This kicked off a debate about auteurism that still continues, but auteur theory has always resonated with me. I respect experimental filmmakers who work in the margins, but Iâ€™m fascinated by directors who work within the system. That takes a very different, almost Darwinian, skill set. Sarris puts it well when he writes, â€śthe auteur theory values the personality of a director precisely because of the barriers to its expressionâ€¦ The fascination of Hollywood movies lies in their performance under pressure.â€ť
Iâ€™m not arguing that women rising in the ranks of television isnâ€™t exciting. I love a lot of the work thatâ€™s being done in television right now, especially some of the writers and actors who are emerging in that medium. The cinematic language of Breaking Bad can rival vintage Scorsese for visual storytelling (see: the Crystal Blue Persuasion montage from season five). Television also seems preternaturally built for social media platforms like Twitter. If you didnâ€™t watch Breaking Bad, Downtown Abbey, Louie, The Walking Dead, or, yes, Girls, you couldnâ€™t be a part of the conversation. Can I really say that about any film from this year? Film arguments seem to be increasingly for the converted — e.g., fanboys and critics scuffling over The Dark Knight Rises reviews — while I had to go full ostrich on nights when my shows aired (hint: avoid Diploâ€™s Twitter feed). This doesnâ€™t change the fact that the hunger for good movies is still there. I get something from films that I canâ€™t get from an episodic television show. Bending a character to the conformed arc of a feature film yields a kind of potency of character and a distilled sense of transformation. To borrow from T.S. Eliot, films â€śhave the strength to force the moment to its crisis.â€ť The elongated timeline of television, while immersive and addictive in its own way, doesnâ€™t have the force of an epic film.
While women directors remain underrepresented, the 1990s boyâ€™s club of talent is still going strong, proving remarkably resilient to the slings and arrows of Los Angeles. This year saw the release of new films by the Andersons (Paul Thomas and Wes), Steven Soderbergh, and David O. Russell (with the Don, Quentin Tarantino, unveiling Django Unchained in late December). In other words: long, flourishing careers. Although the dissonance in opportunity for women directors is frustrating, it doesnâ€™t change the fact that I really liked the new work by the old guard. Wes Andersonâ€™s Moonrise Kingdom, Steven Soderberghâ€™s Magic Mike, and Paul Thomas Andersonâ€™s The Master were notable films in terms of marrying visual style with narrative content. I donâ€™t have a very good memory, and these are films I remembered specifically, and continued to feel something for, long after I had seen them, their imagery and characters impressing themselves upon my memory.
If these worlds are dominated by male characters, there was something surprisingly, but unmistakably, vulnerable about them. These directors have created insular, self-referential worlds, with narratives that donâ€™t thrust as much as they rise and fall. While the girls on television have a glib, modern sort of toughness (despite their quirky, perky, and snarky fronts), the â€śheroesâ€ť of these auteur films seem more unsure and conflicted about who they are. A closer look at these films reveals interesting differences in their depictions of manhood.
• The Boy
From Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom”
The rhythms of life in Paris seemed to have gotten under Wes Andersonâ€™s collar. Moonrise Kingdom had a certain Gallic je ne sais quoi, and the film shook off some of Andersonâ€™s prim tendencies. This wasnâ€™t immediately on display in the opening scene, where we were introduced to Suzy Bishop (played by newcomer Kara Hayward). Suzy was Margot Tenenbaum redux, glaring at us from under eyelids heavily shadowed with blue. In collared dresses and saddle shoes, Suzy lingered on the divide of girlhood and willful womanhood. She met orphan Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) when he wandered backstage at a performance of Noyyeâ€™s Fludde, or Noahâ€™s Flood, an opera by English composer Benjamin Britten (along with Hank Williams, Brittenâ€™s music comprises a prominent chunk of the score).
Sam and Suzyâ€™s inevitable choice to run off together sent the adults into a kind of slapstick panic, revealing more about their own fears than about any real danger the young innocents faced. Suzy and Sam forded small rivers and hiked up cliffs, like Adam and Eve searching for Eden in reverse, and Anderson lit these scenes with golden sunshine. But like most boys, Sam fumbled at his good luck: once he had Suzy, he didn’t know what to do with her. I wasnâ€™t initially sure where Anderson was going with this sequence, and its length made me a bit impatient, but when Sam and Suzy finally reached their destination, an idyllic cove by the sea, the filmâ€™s tone completely changed. In retrospect, Andersonâ€™s pacing is what built the tension and allowed for the payoff.