Teachable Moments: Alamo Drafthouse, Cinefamily & the Future of Repertory Cinema

So I think its time to have a little conversation about value, worth and intersectionality.

Things are pretty weird right now. I was talking with a girlfriend the other day and both of us have been in the film community for a really long time. Long enough to remember when internet-based film writing/promotion and communities didn’t rule the scene. Imagine that! But internet/no Internet, there has always been misogyny. Always been racism. The homophobia has been lesser to an extent, but…that’s entertainment. It’s still there. We all know that transphobia is awful no matter where you go so…end scene.

gender neutral robot

 

Let’s set the stage. Current events: if you’re a straight white male celebrity who sexually assaults women, you might want to start getting scared. James Woods found this out the hard way when Amber Tamblyn called him out on Twitter last week. She wrote two brilliant pieces on Teen Vogue and the NYT, in response to him calling her a liar after she recounted his ill-fated pick-up attempt when she was just 16. Tig Notaro’s recent season of One Mississippi dedicates 2 episodes to addressing sexual assault, which is a direct shout out to Louis CK. Tig has spoken widely about CK’s refusal to address his problem, as have other female comedians.

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Real talk: this shit has been shoved under the rug in the entertainment world since the casting couch was invented and studio heads invited women in for “lunchtime interviews,” promising them the “role of a lifetime.” But women are finally breaking their silence. Which is great. This should be supported and encouraged, especially by powerful men in the media world. But there’s a big chance it won’t be. Why not? Because making a “bold move” such as that might mean outing their friends or losing their buddies. And that’s scary and uncomfortable.

Dudes, I’m calling you out. It’s time. It’s not brave for you to step forward and join us in talking about what’s actually going on. If anyone tells you you’re “brave” or thanks you, tells you how “amazing” you are for standing up, that’s straight up bullshit. You should have always been doing this. You just finally smelled what The Rock was cooking, ok? No back pats, no OMG YOU’RE SO AWESOME!

Make a decision. Look at what’s going on and be on the right side of history. Because history does not wait and it certainly has no sympathy.

Over the last week, some straight white men in the film community have had a few real HOLY FUCKING SHIT moments. These were all heavily tied into the fact that they have absolutely zero comprehension of what VALUE means or what or who might, in fact, be VALUABLE.

It is important to note that most of the recent conversations being had in the film world have been incredibly white and privileged conversations. We have not stopped for one second to address women/people of color, trans bodies, or any communities that might have felt equally bludgeoned by what has been happening in the repertory theater scene. And by that I mean the recent scandals at the Alamo Drafthouse and the Cinefamily.

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LA Weekly, September 13, 2017

I want to approach this discussion of VALUE on an intersectional level and include every body that has ever felt assaulted by today’s straight white male dominated film culture. It is a structure designed specifically to celebrate all that is white, male, moneyed and heterosexual and oppress all that are not. All marginalized groups-defined as women (women of color especially), people of color, queer folx; trans and non-binary identifying individuals- are considered outsiders from this Primary Group and ostracized. We may try to affiliate ourselves with those in this Clique, but the very nature of its construction denies us entry. We haven’t gotten good seats in the movie theater for quite some time.

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I have been in the world of cinema and media studies for most of my adult life. The world has changed a lot in the last twenty years, and I’ve changed with it. The one thing that has not changed is the way that marginalized groups have been treated. This is absolutely a question of VALUE. We are simply not considered to have worth.

Structures of value and worth are why women are spoken over on newscasts and televised political arenas. It’s the reason so few brown faces are protagonists in feature films, there are currently no Asian superhero movies and why black bodies have rarely been lit correctly on film and television until work like Insecure (creators: Issa Rae & Larry Wilmore, 2016) or Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014).

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Issa and Molly, Insecure, Photo: HBO

The incidents I will be discussing- the sexual assault troubles at LA repertory movie theater Cinefamily and the sexual assault/employment cover-up/what-have-you at the Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse- are not ones that I plan to give space to here. Please feel free to Google them at your leisure; there are tons of articles available on both subjects. I will be using them and specific details/ experiences in context that I believe to be important to this piece but I don’t believe that I need to link any articles.

Moving forward then- value has been an issue for hundreds of years in marginalized communities. Consider the following: a body’s worth measured in economics (slavery) or a body’s worth measured in marriage and reproduction (a son is good, the family name/legacy continues, a daughter is bad except for marrying off/childbearing). What about a slave body that can reproduce another slave body (a woman of color)? Think on these things. These evaluations are not done by the bodies themselves but by an outside force; an oppressor. Whether it is White Supremacy or Patriarchal Heteronormativity, dominating another body because of your self-created value structures is just fucked up.

One of the primary topics of this article is sexual assault, an act that involves our physical selves. Our bodies. Our bodies are a big part of our worth. Our bodies are physical containers but they are also reflections of our PERSONAL worth. We value ourselves and we value our bodies. So what do we do when our bodies are violated? Worse than that, what do we do when those whom we value enact violence upon our valuable, worthwhile bodies? Who do we turn to when we are viewed as so invaluable that we cannot even be consulted about intimacy? That’s a fucked up feeling.

This was something many women faced at Cinefamily and have faced for years in the film community. Who would believe that so-and-so did THAT? “He’s so coooool Are you sure you remember right? You weren’t just a little drunk?” Because then he’s off the hook. If you’re drunk, the incident didn’t happen. And if he’s got some kind of high-level rep or if he’s famous then it definitely didn’t happen.

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IndieWire Headline, Aug 22, 2017 11:21 pm

Intimate violence is visited upon our bodies and we can do nothing about it. We are not believed because we have women’s voices. Or queer voices. Or black voices. Or trans voices. While white women like Amber Tamblyn can reveal their stories and talk back to James Woods, do you think anyone would’ve believed a black trans woman who wasn’t famous?

Let’s look at social structures of VALUE. White people don’t value POC. If we did, black bodies wouldn’t be strewn lifeless throughout American streets, while the white bodies that violated them are legally allowed to move on without repercussions. Women/women-identifying folx are not valued. If we were, there would be no such term as “mansplaining.” White women are valued more than Women of Color but that in and of itself makes me cringe. And let’s be honest: trans and non-binary identifying individuals get the worst of it. It’s not just that people don’t value them. People pretend they don’t exist. Value and worth. If society, structured exclusively by White Rich Straight Older Men sees no value in you, you play no part and you are worthless.

Having attended the Cinefamily for a long time, I always noticed that there were many female employees and volunteers. Like an overt amount. I knew a few of them. I also saw a huge turnover rate. I stopped going a few years ago except to certain screenings. I saw brilliant and painfully talented people get treated poorly and that left a bad taste in my mouth.

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Film School Rejects, AUGUST 25, 2017

There were a few men employed there, but for the most part, it was women and not in an “empowering women” way. Looking back, the presence of so many women employees had a display case feel. Which I thought was strange. I chalked it up to Cinefamily being an “extreme hipster” theater but that was definitely not it. Sometimes we tend to compartmentalize when we don’t want to see things that are staring us right in the face. This was one of those things.

To Hadrian (Cinefamily founder), cultivating the look and molding the culture around that theater was part of its cachet. He did a masterful job in many ways. On the other hand, other people who never received the credit did much of the work attributed to him. What is critical here is that he created an environment where the only value system at play was his own. In any other work setting, this would have been seen as abusive. In any other work setting there would’ve been a HR person to assist his employees. But his male-dominated upper management structure (which includes the board) was in charge of the entire feel and social landscape of Cinefamily, from screen to popcorn maker.

So the regular floor employees were intimidated as fuck. The value of the women had been as objects, the men as continuing the promoting of the world/culture that had been created. Sounds a little bit culty. Which has been mentioned before. But I really read this as a lot of fear and sadness and a deterioration of personal worth as you continue to be abused by a workplace situation that you used to adore.

Here’s the even shittier part: this is what the world of repertory theaters and film festivals has been like forever. So the fact that Cinefamily exploded when it did made me roll my eyes a little. I couldn’t help but think: OH FUCK. Here we go. So who’s next? And let me stress right now that I have a lot of love for a lot of people working in the film festival and repertory worlds. My archivist/preservationist world is 100% not without its horror stories. In fact, we are probably due for some explosions too. But we’ll deal with those when they happen.

 

Guerrilla Girls' Pop Quiz 1990 by Guerrilla Girls

 

As for theaters and festivals and their dreadfully loosey goosey culture…These white, straight and male-dominated events and networks have always had Questionable Incidents. In the past, they were sighed at, and “Oh, that’s just so-and-so”-ed at. It really was like Mad Men. Whispers and secret confrontations swept under the rug. It was expected and built in. But when the ladies talk behind closed doors, we’re not fucking happy about it. And we haven’t been happy about it for years.

Did you know that, guys? Or did you think things were ok? Because a lot of you had to know about a lot of the heinous shit that has happened over the last 20 years. Whether I am in academia, the film festival world, entertainment journalism or my current archiving/preservation community, I want some answers. If my girlfriends and I know, if we’ve been frustrated and angry because we couldn’t call someone out because they were Too Big Time, then you guys must know the stories too. You probably know worse stories and have laughed or just rolled your eyes about it. Every time you didn’t warn us or stop those guys or call them out or do something, you let the women in your life and in the film community know that they were not valued.

Friends. WE JUST HAD TWO NUCLEAR MOVIE HOUSE EXPLOSIONS IN LESS THAN TWO MONTHS. Think there’s something rotten in the state of theatrical? Cuz I fuckin’ do.

So let’s update. It’s 2017. Less rep houses, mostly due to the analog/digital changeover. So we’re down a lotta movie houses and up a hellovalot more film festivals. What did that do? Well, it gave us the white, straight male-dominated film culture that focuses on the White Male Film Geek as Lord King God. It is literally White Geek-Bro Supremacy. This is something that has been planted, cultivated and grown over the years, carefully and intentionally. Fed with social media and entertainment journalism, it is so large that it IS VALUE and considered something OF WORTH. Basically, these geeks bring in the bucks. But at what cost?

I’m here to tell you fuck White Geek-Bro Supremacy. There is nothing valuable that can be created by this system. It does not create communities of worth. It gives NOTHING back.  The Cinefamily, Alamo Drafthouse, Fantastic Fest are examples of this dynamic in action and each one of these has either imploded completely or fractured under the weight of its toxic masculinity.

Communities established under this structure do not value women of color who love to read comic books or cosplay because it is joyful. In fact, the communities developed by White Geek-Bro Supremacy do not center joy at all. White Geek-Bro Supremacy centers competition, bullying, and one-upsmanship instead of goodwill, respect and an infectious love for cinema. The cradle of this system is binary viewpoints (best/worst) and list-dependency (top ten most ___). It was heavily nurtured with the idea that some media was indubitably to be valued and some not to be valued, based upon a knowledgeable hierarchy that rose to the top of the message board/chat group communities and eventually published blogs and articles. Incidentally, this is how men ended up dominating authorship of Internet movie sites.

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from Katie Kilkenny’s article, “Why Are So Few Film Critics Female?” in The Atlantic, Dec 27, 2015

White Geek-Bro Supremacy is what was working overtime during the Alamo Drafthouse turmoil this week.

Many thought the mess was about a sexual assault(s) committed by a former writer for an Alamo Drafthouse publication. It was about more than that. It was about a severe lack of transparency, the preferential treatment for a pal and the willingness to risk an entire company’s reputation and national operations on an individual relationship. This speaks of a special kind of blindness: Privilege Blindness. As my friend John Wildman eloquently wrote, a large problem in the Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League’s “crisis management” was that he never stopped to listen to those who should have been listened to.

This is a recurring theme with privilege. Those with White Privilege, Male Privilege, and Heterosexual Privilege have the idea that their privilege affords them earplugs & blinders. The definition of Privilege Blindness is “I will not make the space to listen to you because of xxxx reasons.” Guess what, honey? Not one of those xxxx reasons is valid. Grab a beer. Pop the top. Just get uncomfortable with this.

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When you do not take the time to listen to another person, you are telling them, “You are not valuable. You are not worth anything. You have nothing to tell me of any value. I do not see you as someone who could add value to my life. Your experiences/thoughts/feelings mean nothing to me.” When you do that to someone in a marginalized group, it can be both achingly familiar (we’ve lived our whole lives not being listened to) and possibly life threatening. While the aforementioned former writer for Drafthouse certainly did lousy things, he wrote one good thing on his now-deleted Medium post: “Believe women. Especially when they are talking about you.”

What is it going to take to destroy these systems of oppression? What is it going to take to break down years of abuse? The men and women who have spoken out against the ongoing practices at the Drafthouse are mirror images of those at Cinefamily. They feel ignored, stepped on, devalued and left in the cold. They were not hip enough. Not in the cool kids club. Stories of floor staff at the Drafthouse being treated as “lesser than” because they were not within the upper echelon of the Who’s Who. And I get it: it’s largely impossible in a company that size to have some utopian vision where people are all partying together. But it is possible to have people feel appreciated and like they are part of an institution that is doing something amazing for the cinema community, which is the image that the Drafthouse outwardly projects. Bottom line: the party should never end up being more important than the people who decorated the room for the celebration.

As for Fantastic Fest… Tim League’s gotta be a little sad about that right now. His actions have put him in that funky little zone where moral values have impacted his Financial Value. Fox Searchlight pulled their film from Fantastic Fest. That’s kind of a big deal. While FF usually goes for more unusual fare, it could always use a big studio film for a bump, especially after recently launching new distribution shingle, Neon. Get rid of the testosterone-fueled boxing-matches, limit the VIP-only bashes that create such clear hierarchies and go back to what made the festival unique- its content.

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Boxing match from Fantastic Fest 2014, Photo: Alamo Drafthouse, September 21, 2014

 

So this may have been a lot to get through for many of you. And it may not have made sense or connected to the Cinefamily and Drafthouse situations for some. But please trust me- it all does. Obviously right now I don’t give a shit about TL;DR. Some will read this, others won’t. I’m really pissed off. I hate that it’s taken the devastation of two cinematic institutions and one film festival in order to knock some sense into dudes’ heads and make them remember that women are people too, with feelings and needs and all kinds of INSANE THINGS.

And please know- I never wanted Cinefamily to die. However, in the form that it was in, with that board of directors (some of whom are still very active in the LA rep theater scene), it was impossible. There were amazing people at Cinefamily and amazing people are suffering unemployment now due to its closure. I also do not advocate skipping Fantastic Fest (unless you feel you need to). I think that taking the discussion to the source and holding people accountable is key. But don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk.

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An interesting ad from an anti-rape campaign in Missoula, MT.

I don’t want to see Drafthouse go down in flames but I would like to see its encouragement of White Geek Bro Supremacy stop. This will take more than a few professional sessions with a “crisis management” team. This will mean letting real people – women, POC, queer folx, trans/non-binary film lovers- talk to you, Tim League. And you need to shut up and listen.

Turn a new page. It’s possible, but it’s going to take work. It’s going to take a lot of listening and a lot of people are going to have to get really uncomfortable. A lot of people are going to have to do some major self-reflection. But as Amber Tamblyn wrote to James Woods, “What you are experiencing is called a teachable moment. It is called a gift.”

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Women and other marginalized groups are done being quiet. We know our value and our worth, even if rich straight white dudes don’t. For many of us, discovering intersectionalism has helped. Working together we can be more powerful than by focusing on just our own separate issues. Many of us have discovered new definitions of value and worth in community organizing. But that also means that structures of white supremacy and patriarchy are in serious danger. We’re only going to get louder and more powerful.

So White Male Geek Squad? Y’all should get your shit together and clean up your act. We’re coming for you. And that’s a promise.

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There’s Nothing Like It: Ursula Liang’s 9-MAN

9-Man (Ursula Liang, 2014)

To a native Californian and Angeleno like myself, volleyball has always meant white guys and the beach. While I know that it is played professionally, and there are women’s teams, the concept of anything volleyball-esque brings up a Pavlovian response in me. Visions of blonde men with their tanned caucasian bodies appear in my imagination and I see these perfectly formed specimens, glistening with sunscreen, throwing themselves around in the sun and sand, as their bikini-clad-companions watch. While that may seem romantic and sexy, it’s always been an extreme turn-off to me.

These are precisely the kind of guys and just the kind of culture that I want nothing to do with. In fact, it is the kind of world that I spend an alarming amount of time railing against. They represent the worst of the worst to me. They are the frat-boy types who eat, sleep and breathe white privilege and couldn’t see the world any other way than monied and upper and of the higher-classes. They are blind to what is really going on and that pisses me off. I feel a little bad for the sport of volleyball, since it has suffered my associations, but I will recognize here and now that is my prejudice.  Too many summers near Santa Monica watching people play, I guess.

With this in mind, I can only describe myself as insanely curious and awkwardly starving for Ursula Liang’s documentary, 9-MAN (Ursula Liang, 2014), which played at the Director’s Guild of America as part of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival on Friday night, May 2nd. Co-presented by the Asian Youth Center in the San Gabriel Valley and the Chinese American Museum in Downtown LA (they’re currently running a whole exhibit on hot sauces called “LA HEAT”- it’s totally great! Check them out!), and introduced by the popular and highly entertaining Phil Yu, also known as Angry Asian Man, this documentary blew my mind. Completely unseen, Yu told the audience that he was putting 9-MAN on a list of films he would consider to be in his “Angry Asian Film Club.” “Unless it sucks.” he joked,  “But I know it won’t suck!” And boy was he right. This belongs on that Film Club List with honors!

For what it’s worth, 9-MAN is a sports documentary. Technically, 9-man is a volley-ball-style sport that began in Chinatown communities in the 1930s but it is quite definitely not volleyball.  In fact, that may be why I liked it. The terms “jungle ball” and “streetball” were thrown around quite a bit. Yeah, my ears perked up for sure. As a huge fan of brutal and hyper-masculine sports activities, the minute one of the athletes described 9-man as a game that commits itself fully to a “warrior mentality” I was IN. But it’s not simply a game. 9-man developed historically and has played a significant part in the way that Chinese men have been able to keep their culture alive and dynamic, especially between fathers and sons. As Liang documents so eloquently, this was one of the only outlets that many Chinese men had to express their masculinity during the 1930s/40s and onwards. The Chinese Immigration Acts that started in the late 1880s had seriously diminished roles for Chinese men to play in American culture, and the places that they were allowed to inhabit were exhaustively feminized at that time: laundry work, food service, etc. In order to regain a sense of masculinity and as a way to bond as a community, this game was created. It gave them a sense of dignity, fun and released the stress from these daily horrors.

Picture of 9-man team, 1946

Picture of 9-man team, 1946

But, as Liang stated in the Q&A after the film, she wanted to give a sense of this historical background while still keeping the modern storyline. And that is what she most certainly did. The core of the film and the “meat” focused on today’s teams and the journey towards the 2010 Boston Labor Day finals for several regional teams, and, like a truly great sports film, she makes you truly love and care for all the characters. If I thought that I cried in fictional films like Warrior or He Got Game, this film gutted me. I was at the edge of my seat, really WITH every character. Loving them, routing for them, on their journey. But what made it more interesting was each person’s discussion of the cultural ties and the fact that this was not just a game to them. This was part of their life. While Liang did pointedly say afterwards that her goal was to reimagine Asian men in the sports world and do some stereotype-busting through diverse portrayals (which was quite well-done, I might add) the sports/culture/ethnic connection was what really stood out. The media does not often investigate these issues for Asian men. The discussion of these 9-men player’s masculinity stories, whether done through tales of family connections, cultural struggles or sports dedication was really singular and revealing.

Credit: A player dunks over the net at a 9-man game in Philadelphia. (Andrew Huynh), published in LatitudeNews.com

The film does an excellent job in explaining the rules of the game with animated visuals- there is a difference between 6-man and 9-man games, for instance, and no women are allowed to play. There were wonderful illustrations to explain these things and the placement of the players as well. The intertitles were also quite helpful, as far as technical info was concerned. As of 1991, there was an “ethnic rule” that became part of the rule book- at least 6 men on the court had to be Chinese. The other 3 could be mixed. When asked about this in the Q&A afterwards, the responses were fascinating and reflected a very different 9-man than what had started so many years ago. Ursula was joined on-stage by two 9-man players, and each answered this question differently but with the same basic result. Both agreed (as did Ursula) that at this point it is really up to how good the player is. Many times, it comes down to that and not ethnicity. They will have the “how Chinese is he” arguments, but it will really boil down to “how good of a player is he.” They added that there are many mixed players now, and that will probably increase with time.

Credit: Andrew Choy, Flickr

Credit: Andrew Choy, Flickr

I wondered if this was losing the spirit that been expressed by so many of the older interviewees in the film, especially certain men who had discussed playing 9-man in the 1970s, who had learned to have Chinese community and brotherhood through this activity, and had passed the tradition on to their children. It also made me think about something more serious. As someone who has studied sports that are familial and passed on in that manner (ie wrestling), this “more sports than culture” view being expressed might end up deteriorating the 9-man community and a cultural history and important activity that goes beyond “sports.” But as the final interviewee in the film said about the game, sports or cultural expression, “There’s nothing like it and I’d never give it up.”

Producer Theresa Navarro, director Ursula Liang, and producer Bing Wang of 9-MAN, at Boston premiere

Producer Theresa Navarro, director Ursula Liang, and producer Bing Wang of 9-MAN, at Boston premiere

Ursula Liang has created a documentary that has inspired tears of triumph and heartbreak, nail-biting suspense and loud cheers of joy. This primarily female-produced film (as Liang discussed during the Q&A, most of the crew were women as well, something “you don’t see very often these days!”) combines historical fact with tough sportsmanship and really intelligent discussion about a highly marginalized and underrepresented community.

One of the most beautiful things about the screening was when Phil Yu asked the athletes during the Q&A what it was like to watch the film, and Lawrence, one of the athletes, replied, “I got to see people I know for once.” While it was clear that this referred to 9-man players he was pals with, it had a double-meaning: he got on-screen representation for once. Which is really what the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival is about, and I am glad for it.

 

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FILM ARCHIVIST’S PLEA:  One final note that I would have to make and this is more of a plea. I spoke to Ursula after the screening because, as a moving image archivist I was SINGULARLY IMPRESSED by the footage in the film. Not only is the subject INCREDIBLY unique and rare (she told me very few people she encountered had even heard of 9-man) but the stills and visual elements that are used have come almost entirely from personal collections. Museums and archives that specialized in Asian or Chinese historical works didn’t have anything on this, regional archives were empty, barely anything. I know that Prelinger Archives was on there, but they are amazing like that. Here’s the thing-  THIS WAS ALOT OF HOME MOVIE STUFF, GUYS.  This is not a surprise to mePLEASE see this movie. I will tell you why:

1) It is THAT good. I’ll say it again. IT IS THAT DAMN GOOD.

2) The archival footage will show you that you need to go looking in your Nana’s house for all the cultural 16mm/8mm/etc stuff. It can be really important. LIKE NOW. GO.

3) If you are a POC, your works are EXTRA important and MUST BE SEEN. This film is a FABULOUS WATERSHED EXAMPLE of what can be done if you have a good subject and are a great researcher & can get some help. Liang went the extra mile on this because she taught herself how to be a filmmaker as she was making this film.

4) If you know of anyone who might have any other footage like this, let’s make sure it’s all out there. Seeing this was so great. As an archivist & as someone in preservation, this is *exactly* what we strive to do- restore history to its rightful viewers: us and everyone in the future. Make goodness happen with film. It can be magic. I BELIEVE THIS.

5) Female filmmaker. Need another reason?????

 

DID YOU MISS 9-MAN LAST NIGHT? NO WORRIES. IT’S PLAYING AGAIN! HERE’S THE INFO!

9-MAN – LOS ANGELES ASIAN PACIFIC FILM FESTIVAL

MONDAY, MAY 05, 2014 – 4:30

Tateuchi Democracy Forum, National Center for the Preservation of Democracy
111 N. Central Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012

BUY TICKETS HERE!

Common Careers #3, Special TCM Film Fest Edition: Fannie Hurst

Welcome back to Common Careers! I know that it’s been a minute since we visited with Bryher and Lois, but…Film noir festivals must be attended and attended to. And what fun they are! Now, after exploring the dark streets of desperation and criminality, I am back to showcase the lives and work of the unique and creative women in film history. My hope is to try to post this column on a more regular basis than I have been primarily since locating these women’s stories and their critical influence on the world and film industry can be somewhat difficult. This is a necessary task and I am more than willing to take on some of the responsibility, so let’s get back to business.

Unlike previous profiles, this entry is geared specifically to an upcoming event. I am an annual participant in the TCM Film Festival and have been so for five years: the entirety of its existence. Due to this fact, I thought it might be nice to write-up one of the women who has made a contribution to one of this year’s films. Since I always find it more exciting to look into the slightly more obscure characters in film history, I thought this would be a great opportunity to shed some light on another fascinating female figure in film and allow folks at the festival to watch her creative work a bit differently. So here we go, down the way of cinema’s path, to find one of the women who helped forge some of the more beloved roles and stories in Hollywood: Fannie Hurst.Fannie-Hurst1

Fannie Hurst was born in Hamilton, Ohio in 1889 to an immigrant Jewish family. Her parents, Rose Koppel Hurst and Samuel Hurst, were never the kind of parents to support their daughter in her writing ambitions or any kind of creative intent. Raised in St Louis, Missouri, Fannie discovered her love for the written word early and submitted short stories and articles to magazines all during high school but didn’t get anything published until college.  Indeed, her intense passion for writing got her into some trouble before she was even able to make it to higher education. In high school, Fannie had no qualms about writing term papers in exchange for math answers from high school classmates. This little “swap” almost caused Fannie’s expulsion!

Hurst had many jobs in her lifetime aside from her most famous one as a writer- salesgirl, waitress, actress, night court attendee, factory worker (to study coworkers, of course!) and television talk show/public affairs program host. Fannie Hurst was no regular gal. Aside from being a woman who knew how to make ends meet, by 1925, she and Booth Tarkington were the highest paid writers in the United States.

Of course, Fannie Hurst’s writing was not everyone’s cuppa. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book, The Other Side of Paradise, one of his characters makes a statement that lists various authors (naming our heroine as one) as “not producing among ‘em one story or novel that will last 10 years.” People felt her literature was too “corny” and she was referred to as the Queen of the Sob Sisters (although not in an altogether unfriendly way). Almost to disprove Fitzgerald’s theory of course, here we are, 100 years later and although almost all of Hurst’s books are tragically out of print, we are indeed still discussing her work. And to add to this, the films that were borne from her writing have most certainly not been forgotten. In fact, they play remarkably well and some are treasured cinematic classics. What a curious point about adaptation and media. It does strike a peculiar point about Fannie Hurst’s gift for the dramatic: did Hurst’s ability to comprehend pure emotional resonance in characters work better for visual media than for the written word? It is a conundrum and perhaps we will never know, but we might consider the possibility.

back street

Fannie Hurst was heavily critiqued for her prose, grammar and style. Yet she was also immensely popular. Over a career that spanned more than fifty years, she wrote seventeen novels, nine volumes of short stories, three plays, numerous articles, and had 33 filmic adaptations of her written works. Everyone from Doris Day and Frank Sinatra to John Garfield and Joan Crawford starred in those films, and a few of them did more than just entertain, much like Fannie Hurst herself.

 

 

The work that has been made and remade the most is her novel Imitation of Life, originally published in 1933. The first film version made in 1934, due to show at the TCM Film Festival this upcoming week, features the lustrous Claudette Colbert and the deeply talented Louise Beavers. The two actresses play single mothers raising their children together, learning how to become entrepreneurs and end up facing the ugly and distasteful world of racism. The film also confronts rare issues of skin color and topics like “passing” at a time when absolutely no film script was.

Before this film, Louise Beavers was a well-known African American actress in Hollywood, but generally known for playing the “mammy” stereotype. In Imitation of Life, Beavers became the first African American actress to give a “non-Mammy” role. By playing the part of Delilah alongside Colbert’s Bea, they created an interracial female team of womanly strength in this film, unlike anything that had been seen before. One of the more potent assets of this film directed by John M. Stahl is Louise Beavers’ portrayal of Delilah. In 1934, just the concept of giving an African American woman a part this dynamic and rich that was on par to a Hollywood starlet such as Colbert was unheard of.lrgpic21

Imitation of Life deals with several topics that were not considered “Hollywood safe” at the time- racial relations, single women, and the idea of racial “passing.” Chief of the Production Code Administration Joseph Breen was extremely suspicious of this film, rejecting the original script and calling out “miscegenation.”  However, at the end of the day, what was released did contain more of the original story. While both films are based on the same novel, more original Hurst-written Imitation is contained in the 1934 version than in the later 1959 version (starring Lana Turner and Juanita Moore).

The film has been remade several times over, turned into a television series and remained popular the world over. It is the one Hurst work that has genuinely changed the landscape of cinema. The National Film Registry selected the 1934 version for preservation in 2005 and it continues to be a valuable piece of moving image history when it comes to African American representation and strong examples of rich female characters in film. This is not the only thing that has established Fannie Hurst in the halls of greatness but if this had been the only thing she had done, it would have been enough.imitation_of_life_1934-2

Hurst did not write this “just because.” Imitation was apparently inspired by a trip to Canada taken with close friend and confidente Zora Neale Hurston. One can only assume that what occurred during the voyage was less that satisfactory at times and struck Hurst in such a fashion that she felt inspired to write a tale involving race, passing and the ins and outs of what is involved in an interracial friendship. But this seemed to be par for the course in Hurst’s personal affairs.

Fannie Hurst’s life was as unusual as her writing was prolific. Convincing her parents that she was going to go to graduate school in New York after graduating from Washington University in 1909, she moved there and never attended Columbia as promised.  Although she never made it to graduate school, her work in politics and feminism more than made up for any advanced degree. Marrying Russian pianist Jacques Danielson in 1915, the couple maintained separate dwellings, told no one of the wedding until 1920, and had an arrangement with one another to renew their vows every five years…but only if both parties agreed.

Fannie Hurst was one of the original members of what was called the Lucy Stone League. Founded in 1921, it was a women’s rights organization that primarily encouraged women to keep their maiden names upon marriage. This group began with the advocation of keeping surnames post-marriage and expanded, essentially challenging “state and federal laws that allowed a woman to be seen as a commodity belonging to her husband, laws that allowed her to be beaten and denied her property or inheritance.”

Although it has been well documented that she had at least one affair with Canadian explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Hurst was most dedicated to her husband. Married for 37 years, Danielson passed away in 1952. Upon Hurst’s death in 1968, 16 years worth of letters were discovered in her house, all of which were written to her long-gone life partner after his death. There’s something sadly romantic about that. It certainly matches the tone of her fiction.

But Fannie Hurst was more than the Lucy Stone League. She became great friends with Eleanor Roosevelt, supporting the New Deal and chairing a national housing committee from 1936-1937.  She raised funds for WWII refugees and was a member on the board of the New York Urban League. A delegate to the World Health Organization in 1952, she was also part of a group called the Friendly Visitors, women who regularly volunteered in a New York women’s prison. When Fannie became entangled with Justice Arthur Goldberg in 1962 and he stated, “that it is time that we evaluated Women on merit and fitness for a job,” her quick response was, “Time sir! You are a half century too late.”

Eleanor Roosevelt and Fannie Hurst

Eleanor Roosevelt and Fannie Hurst: fast friends!

Her contribution to the moving image media world was not solely made through the adaptation of literary works. Beginning in 1958, Hurst hosted a talk show called Showcase that featured public affairs panels and social issue-based interviews. Showcase was one of the first television forums in which the gay and lesbian community was invited to speak on their own behalf instead of being given the third degree or being treated as though they were a science project. Most previous television appearances of homosexual men or women featured them being studied or questioned as though they existed within a fishbowl or were a group to be “dealt with” by a panel of specialists.

Hurst’s breakthrough show was not as popular as one might have hoped. While Fannie Hurst’s support of the gay and lesbian community was unfailing (and had been so for years), the television stations were not all game for this content. While her fame certainly had some cache, it didn’t outweigh rampant homophobia. Showcase was cancelled several times by more than one station, finally ending for good after a year.  As Steven Capsuto writes, “Hurst had contentious disagreements with station managers over her insistence on presenting panel discussions about homosexuality, and these broadcasts may have contributed to the cancellations.  When the second station, New York’s Channel 13, axed the show definitively in 1959, Hurst had begun devoting one show a week to the subject of homosexuality.  The final Showcase broadcast focused on same-sex desire among teenagers.”

While Fannie Hurst may have been called Queen of the Sob Sisters and criticized for her writerly techniques, her success is undeniable. Films like Young at Heart (Gordon Douglas, 1954), Humoresque (Jean Negulesco, 1946), and both versions of Imitation of Life (John M. Stahl, 1934, Douglas Sirk, 1959) show the way in which her written word had the ability to be converted to graceful, touching and enjoyable film work. Although modern temperance for melodrama may have lessened in the last 75 years, Hurst’s ability to catalyze real emotion and make an audience feel for a character remain altogether genuine. And in an environment where the vast majority of filmic content produced has a certain level of smarminess or “ironic nudging” there is something very fresh and real about a woman who just wanted to tell a good old-fashioned tearjerker tale.

Fannie Hurst’s life and everything she managed to do with it makes her a marvel. What a treasure it is that we can say that she is part of our history of women in film.

 

Fannie Hurst with her Yorkshire Terrier, Orphan Annie.

Fannie Hurst with her Yorkshire Terrier, Orphan Annie.

Common Careers #2: Annie Winifred Ellerman aka Bryher

I hope you enjoyed reading about Lois Weber last week as much as I enjoyed writing about her. One of the most enjoyable things about this series is that I get to exploit the blog medium as much as possible in the relaying of these women’s profiles. As much as I loved graduate school, I felt that there was a serious disconnect in the way in which we conveyed our academic work.

I believe that, in this day and age, when we have access to moving image elements that can make our arguments more dynamic than ever and give further validation to our academic research, we should enrich these pieces, not leave them dry. Using stills, clips and documents within a piece is a glorious way to make a piece more palatable and, indeed, more accessible to a larger audience.  Multimedia academics is a delicate world but something that is fun and wonderful to explore and intelligently exploit as often as possible. I feel that it aids the consumption of materials as much as it does the production.

So now…………

Common Careers#2: Annie Winifred Ellerman aka Bryher

Winifred Annie Ellerman, 1894-1983

Bryher, 1894-1983

Bryher is one of the most fascinating women that you have likely never heard about but you will be absolutely floored by once you have. I know I was. Born Annie Winifred Ellerman in 1894 to John Ellerman who, at the time, was the richest Brit who had ever lived, little Winifred missed out on her complete inheritance due to the fact that she was technically illegitimate: she was born 15 years before her parents were legally wed. Not to say that she wasn’t well-off she did fine, apparently showing more business sense later in life than her brother who had inherited more of the family bankroll and mismanaged it entirely. Winifred Ellerman, born of shipping royalty, was not a woman who was going to go the way of most women of the day. In fact, she went with women of the day instead.

Although she got married twice, Winifred had no questions about her sexuality: she was an out lesbian (or as out as you could be in the early part of the twentieth century), and used her husbands as “beards.” She explored that aspect of her life to the fullest, having very extensive relationships with other women, most significantly with the poetess and writer, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), who she maintained a strong relationship with from 1918 until H.D.’s death in 1961.

Photograph of Bryher, taken by Man Ray in 1923

Photograph of Bryher, taken by Man Ray in 1923

According to the Cambridge Companion to Gay and Lesbian Writing, Winifred had her name legally changed by deed poll to Bryher in 1951. However, she began using it far before. The name itself was born from a fond experience of the Isles of Scilly during her youth and a desire to free herself from the bonds and obligations of what it meant to “be an Ellerman.” Thusly she renamed herself after a favored island. This would be the name she would be known by for the remainder of her writing career as well as everything else she participated in. Her solid financial status gave her the ability to back and publish a slew of different publications and fund the burgeoning psychoanalytic community in Vienna, including becoming friendly with Freud.

Not only that, but Bryher risked her very life by making her home in Switzerland a way station for Jewish refugees to escape from Germany into Switzerland, from 1933 to 1939. Indeed, without this “underground path,” one of the more notable philosophers of our time, Walter Benjamin, might have perished. Shortly after this dangerous mission, she and H.D. fled their Switzerland home to London, narrowly escaping.

Bryher married two men. She did this primarily in order to gain the freedoms that only a married woman had at the time: travel, personal independence, and complete separation from her family. Her first marriage, to Robert McAlmon, lasted from 1921-27, at which point Bryher divorced him. Mind you, she had met H.D. already, and was in a very deep relationship with her, so McAlmon also simply served as a marriage of convenience. A very short time after that first divorce, Bryher remarried Kenneth Macpherson, and they built a house in Switzerland that they called “KerWin” (after each of their names). Their marriage spanned from 1927-1947.

Neither of Bryher’s marriages was straight-up, so to speak. McAlmon was gay, thus Bryher was as much a “cover” for him as he for her. Macpherson on the other hand? Well, his relationship with Bryher was more complex and interesting. Macpherson too shared Bryher’s attraction towards the same-sex, but, on occasion, he took a female lover. At the time of his marriage to Bryher, that female lover happened to be H.D., Bryher’s lover as well. So, as you see, this was not exactly Leave it to Beaver.

Kenneth McPherson and H.D. in Switzerland, where they spent the majority of the 20s and 30s

Kenneth McPherson and H.D. in Switzerland, where they spent the majority of the 20s and 30s

Bryher’s confident lesbian identity never conflicted with H.D.’s bisexuality, as both women had laid claim to their sexuality early in life. Previously, H.D. even bore a daughter named Perdita (to a friend of D.H. Lawrence’s, Cecil Grey!) who Bryher ended up adopting a few years later. Contrary to the way that society at the time viewed the “homosexual impulse,” neither woman harbored any kind of negative feelings about the way that they lived their lives; these were revolutionary figures in the way that they constructed their creative and sexual identities in a world that was (and still is) very confused in the way women are allowed to do so. H.D. and Bryher had an open relationship with one another, a productive friendship and their academic/film/literary work made a significant difference in women’s history and cultural history in general.

During her marriage to McAlmon, Bryher strongly endorsed (and financially backed) his formation of the publishing company that distributed the works of authors such as Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound. After their marriage ended, she decided she did not wish to be out of the literary game and kept money flowing to Mr. Joyce and assisted American expatriate Sylvia Beach in her efforts to keep the Shakespeare and Company  bookshop afloat. In 1927, shortly after getting married for the second time and beginning her cooperative relationship with Macpherson and H.D., she began to invest a great deal of time, money and energy in film-related projects. Bryher became a kind of film activist, highly involved in publishing for, creating and analyzing the cinematic world; her contributions creating a small but significant set of visual and written works that remain useful and groundbreaking even today. It was at this point that Bryher, H.D. and Macpherson began to call themselves “The POOL Group,” and proceeded to create a film company (POOL Productions), invent the first English-language journal dedicated entirely to film theory (Close-Up), and published a variety of books written by Macpherson and Bryher, as well as other film-related literature.

The POOL Group Logo

The POOL Group Logo

Before they began publishing or creating, POOL placed an announcement in various magazines and journals. It stated,

POOL

is announced.

It has projects. It will mean, concerning books, new hope.

It has projects. It will mean, concerning cinematography, new beginning. 

New always. Distinguished, and with a clear course.

BOOKS.           FILMS.

encouragement.

CLOSE UP a monthly magazine to begin battle for film art. Beginning July. The first periodical to approach films from any angle but the commonplace. To encourage experimental workers and amateurs. Will keep in touch with every country and watch everything. Contributions on Japanese, Negro viewpoints and problems, etc. Some of the most interesting personages of the day will write.” (p. 9, Close Up 1927-1933: Cinema and Modernism, Edited by James Donald, Anne Friedberg, & Laura Marcus)

Clearly they had quite lofty goals. Is it possible that they believed that they would keep in touch with every country and watch everything? Perhaps. The contributors to Close Up and the POOL Group themselves were very optimistic and extremely passionate as certain artists and film theorists have been known to be,  (see: Cahiers du Cinema for further reference). As time wore on, however, it became very clear that the greatest accomplishment of The POOL Group was to be Close-Up, so they phased out or lessened other publications and projects and focused on that.

The film work done by the POOL Group is highly worth recognizing, however. Borderlinethe experimental silent film that stars Paul Robeson and his wife as well as other POOL Group members was unavailable for years, locked away and unavailable for public consumption. But it is a masterpiece. This work not only tackles interracial romance in 1930 but was accomplished through Robeson donating much of his time almost voluntarily. Borderline ended up highly censored and controversial, as one might imagine, given the subject matter and time period. It was the POOL Group’s primary feature film, and although it was written and directed by Kenneth Macpherson, it certainly was a POOL Group production and involved all members. Much like the Lois Weber work, we must be grateful for Borderline’s recovery out of invisibility and restoration by George Eastman House, making this critically important piece of cinema once again viewable.

 

 

Bryher and H.D. filming Borderline (1930). Bryher played the Manageress & H.D. played Astrid

Bryher and H.D. filming Borderline (1930). Bryher played the Manageress & H.D. played Astrid

Author Susan McCabe writes of an unpublished interview from 1979 in which Bryher states that “Film was not my metiér,” and points to the heavy involvement of H.D. and Macpherson when it came to the establishment of The POOL Group and, especially, Close-Up. However, this statement seems to overlook her own intimate involvement with every part of the POOL Group and her own contributions. Whether she felt that her connection to film didn’t last (she became a fiction writer after this period and never delved into the film theory/critical world much after this) and thus it “didn’t count” or she was trying to give her partners more credit really that crucial when you look at her contribution in the end.  Her relevance and value to the film community and to film history itself is unquestionable.

While she may not have seen film as the subject in which she excelled or found her “voice,” Close-Up appeared in 1927 and concluded its run in 1933, working its magic by deeply studying topics in film culture that had not been dealt with up to that point. It explored women in the film industry, film technology and technique, race, cinema and class consciousness and other socially relevant film subjects. Furthermore, due to the fact that there were poets, authors and film professionals contributing to the journal, Close-Up benefited from those women and men who elaborated on the experience of the cinema, politics of visual construction, technical aspects of film and simple film reviews. It also underscored the contributions of directors such as Pabst, Eisenstein and Dreyer and highlighted the critical value of Russian filmmaking to the cinematic world.photo 3 Macpherson served as editor-in-chief, while Bryher was assistant editor. H.D. was a regular journalist/contributor, but all members of the POOL Group wrote for the magazine. Close-Up advertised itself as being the “official guide to better movies” and made demands on the cover, stating “WE WANT BETTER FILMS!!” photo 2 Close-Up was nothing if not versatile. Just to examine the content of the journal, these are a few of the articles that were published: The Negro Actor and the American Movies by Geraldyn DismondThe Cinema in the Slums, The Front Rows, There’s No Place Like Home by Dorothy Richardson (another stunningly fascinating woman of the era who wrote these pieces for her regular column Continuous Performance, a feature focused on the experience of watching a film), The Sound Film: A Statement from U.S.S.R. by Sergei EisensteinW.I. Pudovkin, and The Independent Cinema Congress by Jean Lenauer. For Bryher, the journal became more a space to express politics and community coordination in the filmic world than one of critical review. The articles that Bryher wrote had titles like How I Would Start a Film Club (1928) or What Shall You Do in the War (1933). The latter of the two articles, written during the onset of WWII, contained the following quote:

Let us decide what we will have. If peace, let us fight for it. And fight for it especially with cinema. By refusing to see films that are merely propaganda for any unjust system. Remember that close co-operation with the United States is needed if we are to preserve peace, and that constant sneers at an unfamiliar way of speech or American slang will not help towards mutual understanding. And above all, in the choice of films to see, remember the many directors, actors and film architects who have been driven out of the German studios and scattered across Europe because they believed in peace and intellectual liberty. (p.309, Close Up 1927-1933: Cinema and Modernism, Edited by James Donald, Anne Friedberg, & Laura Marcus)

 

photo 1

After working with Close-Up , Bryher moved on to other creative pursuits, writing several books and continuing to sponsor literary publications and financially support H.D., although their relationship altered considerably over the years and they lived apart from each other after 1946. Bryher died in 1983 in Switzerland, alone and almost forgotten. To this day, Bryher’s importance to the film world and as a woman in film history has remained buried in obscurity. Without Bryher, there would have been no POOL Group, no Close-Up, no Borderline. It is critical to note that it was not merely her finances that made these projects happen. While Bryher may have been the “money (wo)man,” she also backed them with her unending passion for action. Much like Lois Weber’s drive to depict that which she felt was genuinely important through the visual image, Bryher worked endlessly to make certain that the things that she believed in were published and distributed and accessible to readers and viewers in addition to giving the creative people she believed in a chance to produce their work.

Bryher’s contributions to  film culture are vast and many. Some of the first examples of advanced critical film theory and discussions of film in its social application were brought up in the pages of POOL publications. Revisiting these articles, they are still relevant to today’s film world. There is something fresh and active and new about this voice that she helped create, a film voice that sang for experimental works and Russian cinema, the glory of sitting in a darkened theater with strangers and the disappointment of the most recent Hollywood fare over foreign works. Why are we not celebrating People of Color in cinema more? Why are women not having stronger roles? These topics that we speak about today in 2014 BEGAN here.

It is this voice that, even many decades later, points out how little some things have changed. It is my humble proposition that we make Bryher more of an important figure for women in cinema. After all, who doesn’t need how to form a film club? Bryher has more to teach, and I think that she always will.

I ask you all, because her question maintains the utmost relevance: What shall you do in the war?

 Addendum: Once again, giving a shout-out where it’s due, I highly recommend that you read one of my very favorite professor’s work on this topic, Historical Predictions, Contemporary Predilections: Reading Feminist Theory Close Up by Amelie Hastie.  It is AWESOME, and it will give you a much more full study on this fantastic subject. I would highly recommend it.  Without Professor Hastie, I would know nothing about Close-Up and I am the better person for it. The book that I have is so marked up & full of notes…It’s well-loved. So I hope you dig this jaunt! The POOL Group and Close-Up are some fascinating stuff!

Common Careers #1: Lois Weber

Welcome to Common Careers, the series about women who helped to create the moving image world and industry and make it the dynamic and vibrant world that it is today. As I noted in my initial introduction, this series has come about as a result of the fact that we have begun to talk about women’s invisibility on a larger scale again. Discussions on the Bechdel Test and statistics on how many women are hired on a regular basis in powerful roles have become part of the “daily share-ables” on our social media landscape (Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter). But what we are not making part of the new feminist media discourse is the fact that there was a previous set of women who set the stage and had their creative say and work ignored once the Big Boys with their Big Toys came around. These were the women who helped build what we have now and truly gave us a foundation for the way we look at actresses of today and women’s place in media. And they’ve been there since the very start. And with that, we will begin just there- at the very beginning of movie history, the silent era.

Lois "the Wizard" Weber (1879-1939), screenwriter, one of the highest paid directors in the silent era, and highly focused on social reform and gender issues through her cinematic output

Lois “the Wizard” Weber (1879-1939), screenwriter, director, one of the highest paid professionals in the silent era, and highly focused on social reform and gender issues through her cinematic output

Lois Weber, author of “How I Became a Motion Picture Director” (1915), was, as Shelley Stamp writes, “one of the top talents in Hollywood. In 1916, she was the first and only woman elected to the Motion Picture Directors Association, a solitary honor she would retain for decades.” Not only that, Weber was one of the first individuals to use full frontal nudity in a film that was not intended for pornographic use.

While it may seem surprising that there were women in the the early days of film who were not only granted power within the industry but were also able to use their creative energies in order to further messages of female equality, it is essential to look at the social landscape at the time. Women’s suffrage had been growing and gaining speed and membership over the last 50+ years, so by the time Weber began her career as an actress and then as an apprentice under the guidance of the woman who is widely considered to be the first female motion picture director, Alice Guy-Blaché, the pursuit (and investigation) of subjects such as birth control, marriage, economics and freedom was not entirely verboten. At least not according to the standards that a modern female director of the time whose desire was to investigate these “social problems” through the filmic text and create a context for which more could be better understood and learned by a society that (more than likely) was not having much of it.

As we will see, looking at the early women in film, they may not always have aligned themselves with the women’s rights movement. While the content of their filmwork and their careers and, indeed, their very existence in the film community identified them as having a strongly advanced female position, many of these women didn’t identify with political structures and their personal lives reflected a different world than their professional ones. Women in early film, Lois Weber being a prime example, were not always “big hearty independent females who didn’t need a man.” As history has shown, a certain percentage of the hard luck stories of these amazing women came from their dedication to their marriages or relationships above their careers, and much of their work and careers failed when their relationships did. Lois Weber was extremely successful throughout much of her life, but had terrible luck with men (struck it rich with the alcoholic variety), and ended up dying penniless and practically forgotten at age 60. The only film community members who supported this legendary figure after death were other women in the community: celebrated screenwriter Frances Marion paid for her funeral and renowned gossip columnist Hedda Hopper gave her more than a few sentences in the newspaper as an obituary. And for a woman who changed the silver screen? That seems beyond heartbreaking. It’s just wrong.

Lois Weber and her first husband, Wendell Phillips Smalley, began making films together for Universal in the 1910s. Weber could do it all and did! She wrote, directed, acted, did subtitling, edited and apparently developed negatives as well. She started really getting attention when she started making films that made people a little upset due to the highly controversial content. The primary film talked about within this context is her 1914 feature film, Hypocrites, which she directed and wrote. Not only did this film feature full frontal nudity, but it dealt with issues of moral blindness, religious figures and being faced with the “Naked Truth” in the form of (literally) the naked form of a highly attractive (but uncredited) Margaret Edwards (who later plays a naked statue in the film as well).

Hypocrites was banned in Ohio, reportedly asked by James Michael Curley, the mayor of Boston at the time, to have the negatives be painted over so that the “Naked Truth” be a bit less revealing, and altogether scandalous. But it was popular and gained her confidence with the higher-ups at Universal who made her one of the top-paid filmmakers in Hollywood at that time. Weber went on to make other films like Where Are My Children? (1916) with her husband, which focused on illegal abortion, birth control and concepts of “obscenity” loosely based on Margaret Sanger.

Still from Lois Weber's "Where Are My Children?" depicting the soul of a baby above a possible mother...

Still from Lois Weber’s “Where Are My Children?” depicting the soul of a baby above a possible mother…

This film was very popular (although, again, not with the censors), included the “high-tech” use of trick photography and multiple exposures and inspired an unofficial sequel,  Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1917) in which Smalley and Weber star as husband and wife sex education and family planning advocates. Tragically, Hand is considered a lost film, like many of the great silent works of the day, and unless it is located at some later date (never give up hope!), we may never know what that film held for us. Erik Bondurant writing on Where Are..states that “Lois Weber, one of the first and greatest directors in cinema history, provides a much-needed woman’s voice and eye on the topic.” While many things about abortion and family planning have changed since the days of Margaret Sanger getting slapped with obscenity charges for birth control pamphlets, I think it is safe to say that the films that Weber contributed within this genre of women’s social reform are no small matter in film history. Indeed, if one were to look at the films released in 2013/14, and consider what we can/can’t do and what is socially acceptable or what will make money and the fact that we are allowed R ratings and plenty of full frontal nudity (no negative painting required!), it could be said that the works being released in the teens were of a more strident and generous nature for women’s livelihoods.

Aside from issues of family planning, Lois Weber tackled poverty and its connection to a young woman’s moral breakdown (Shoes, 1916), drugs (Hop, the Devil’s Brew, 1916), antisemitism (A Jew’s Christmas, 1913) and many other issues with her films. The problem is that, much like Hand That Rocks the Cradle, most of these films are lost to us. As Anthony Slide so deftly notes, “The major problem in any attempt to rediscover America’s first female directors is that the films themselves are missing…Lois Weber directed some forty feature films but only a dozen can be found in film archives. It is not even the simple matter of the films being lost. An equal problem is that what films have survived are not always the best examples of the director’s work.”

Lois Weber was not only a striking figure by way of filmic subject matter or in the high amounts of money that she was being paid as a filmmaker, but when she left Universal in 1917, Weber formed her very own production company, establishing her place in history as the first female director to do so. Lois Weber Productions concentrated on films that were more focused on the female experience in domestic life: What Do Men Want (1921), a melodrama about male infidelity in marriage, and The Blot (1921), a story that centers on issues of poverty and wealth between the classes and how they experience one another and survive were examples of the kinds of works that were par for the course. However, unlike working for Universal, she was able to have a great deal more power in the manner in which the films were shot (on-location and in narrative sequence).

Lois_Weber_Productions_ad_1921

While Weber’s career went downhill in the 1920s, and some have attributed it to her failed marriage to Smalley (as he was her partner in many creative endeavors) it is more likely, according to Shelley Stamp, that things took a downturn due “to larger circumstances at play in Hollywood during the early 1920s, circumstances that compromised the fate of many independently run production companies, especially those headed by women. Plus, Weber’s focus on urban social problems, rather than amusement, and on the complexities of marriage, rather than romantic courtship, was increasingly perceived as outdated, overly didactic, and dower.” However, it is worth mentioning that during this same time, Weber solidified her relationships with the female community of Hollywood in a variety of ways and, although her career might have been heading south, she was maintaining her dedication to being a strong woman in the community and seeking out bonds with the rest of the women in Hollywood. She went to special women’s luncheons, did a national speaking tour on the subject of “Woman’s Influence in the Photoplay World.”  “Alternating with her talks on ‘woman’s influence,’ ” As Shelley Stamp writes, “Weber also spoke about more controversial topics like ‘Moving Picture Censorship’ and ‘The Sunday Blue Laws’ to women’s clubs in Denver, Salt Lake City, Topeka, and Indianapolis. A staunch opponent of censorship, Weber addressed clubwomen at a time when they were stepping up calls for greater regulation of motion pictures. Following their successful campaigns for women’s suffrage and prohibition, both ratified in 1920, women’s groups were considered extremely influential and effective advocates for social change.”  If Lois Weber couldn’t change the world through making the films, she was going to try to connect with the other powerful women in the country in order to create and point out the changes that needed to occur. Once a social reformer, always a social reformer.

Stamp’s initial summary of Weber’s career turnaround is highly probably. While Lois Weber eventually remarried and produced more films, she never again reached that same peak that she had back in the ‘teens. But judging from publications of the time, she may have not been alone in this. Circumstances changed for industry women in the 1920s and onward. The May, 1917 issue of Photoplay magazine describes the misogynistic landscape that women directors were dealing with to a T: “Another good omen is the subsidence of the ‘her-own-company’ epidemic. It seems to have been a winter disease, as the coming of spring brought with it a cessation of corporation founding activities.” Of course, this “news piece” is just above another item that discusses Ruth Ann Baldwin, another female director of the time, describing her in terms of belonging to the “so-called fairer sex” and having just married an actor that she had recently “bossed around” in a number of films for Universal. As time went on, opportunities for women to flourish a la Lois Weber, slowly collapsed and transitioned into very different opportunities and all new challenges. Although women maintained a certain amount of power and became highly in other areas, the so-called “her-own-company epidemic” was a very special period of film history and one that really created a space for films to be made that explored the female experience.

Finally, Lois Weber’s work, while we don’t have as much as we would like, has had some wonderful time spent on it recently and has renewed interest in this wonderful and tragically ignored figure in women’s film history. The EYE Film Institute in the Netherlands has done a remarkable job restoring her film Shoes (1916). I was lucky enough to see a presentation about it at an archivist’s conference a while back and the work and energy that they put forth on this piece is simply stunning. With that, I leave you with a clip showing the before/after of the restoration work, and hope that you have enjoyed this week’s Common Careers!


ADDENDUM: Huge shout out to Professor Shelley Stamp!! She was an amazing professor that I actually was lucky enough to have during my undergraduate years at UCSC, and without her copious writings on Lois Weber, I would not have been able to verify some of the information I had and thus complete this profile. I highly recommend that you read the entirety of this article if you are more interested in Lois Weber: http://www.frameworkonline.com/Issue52/521stamp.html and also REALLY recommend that you all visit the Lois Weber profile that Shelley Stamp also did on the INCREDIBLE AND AWESOME Women Film Pioneers Project. https://wfpp.cdrs.columbia.edu/pioneer/ccp-lois-weber/

Also, that site is my hero. Seriously.

Common Careers: Profiles of Women in Media Culture

Funny business, a woman’s career. The things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you’ll need them again when you get back to being a woman. That’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not, being a woman. Sooner or later, we’ve got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted. And in the last analysis, nothing’s any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed, and there he is. Without that, you’re not a woman. You’re something with a French provincial office or a book full of clippings, but you’re not a woman. Slow curtain, the end.                                                                                                                                                                                         – Margo Channing,  ALL ABOUT EVE

Margo Channing, the central figure of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Academy Award-winning film All About Eve, is undoubtedly one of the greatest female characters in cinema history. But Bette Davis, the woman who made her screen-famous, is the woman behind the woman, so to speak. Bette Davis’ dominance and desired control over her roles and career in real life bled over into the majority of the fictional characters that she played. From the 1930s onwards, Davis sought her independence from the studio contract system. Beginning with a court case that she ultimately lost (WARNER BROS v NELSON, 1936) her desire was to free herself of her current ties and open up more possibilities for her to play parts in whatever films she wished, seeing as the roles she was receiving from Warner were (in her eyes) limiting her career. This small set-back did not stop Davis, however. Although she continued under the aegis of Warner Brothers and became quite successful, she reached out in other ways. To Warner, Davis may have simply been viewed as one of their more financially attractive properties. To Davis, her heightened position in Hollywood gave her power and leverage. And she was quick to take notice of this. In 1941, she became the very first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. However, she relinquished the position a few months later when her Academy cohorts refused to agree with her “radical” idea of supporting the troops and having a performance and nationwide broadcast for the war effort in lieu of the annual Academy Awards.

Bette was a smart woman. While most people are quite familiar with the unyielding and assertive figure she cut on-screen, the lesser-known facts about Davis are just as striking. When her contract with Warner Brothers was renewed in 1944 she made damn sure that she got something in return: she would be allowed to produce 5 films herself, in addition to starring in them. Out of the five, the only one that was ever actually made was A Stolen Life (Curtis Bernhardt, 1946), but she produced the hell outta that picture. Davis freed herself from the bonds of Warner Brothers in August of 1949, calling it her “professional divorce” and becoming a freelance actress for the remainder of her career. For a woman who existed and played within the “studio limits” she definitely pushed them, both within the films she made and through the life she led outside of the sound stage.A Stolen Life2a

But let’s face facts here: the pure unadulterated truth is…there were a great deal more working women than Bette Davis in Hollywood at that time. Not only that, but many of them were women who had more control over their own careers, economic possibilities and personal situations than even Bette Davis. While not all of these women can say that they rocked the very foundations of the film industry by suggesting that they skip the Holy of Holies (the Academy Awards) in exchange for a war fundraiser, many of these women did other things in Hollywood that had a similar effect.

I engaged in a conversation a few weeks ago with a few people online about women’s roles in the film industry today versus what they used to be and when that changed. As a trained film scholar and media archivist who specializes in women in film culture/film history, I realized that we were missing some vital information. As a woman in the film community, I am thrilled that we have established a vital and dynamic interest in getting women the recognition, equality and positioning that we deserve. The heightened enthusiasm for positive female representation in media that certain groups like the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media and Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls at The Party have shown is nothing short of brilliant as far as I’m concerned.slider-geena-announcement

But we have a problem. We seem to be reinventing the wheel in certain circumstances. There is a disconnect and it is a big one. That disconnect is called history. Didn’t we have women doing some pretty awesome stuff and being excellent role models a while back? Is our cultural memory that short?

Admittedly, back in the earlier days of cinema, women did not have certain advantages that we have now. For example, pants. In the film noir, Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1950) Peggy Cummins’ character, Annie Laurie Starr, is reprimanded for wearing pants to work. This is probably not a scene we would see in a film today. However, much like this sartorial issue, it is also sadly unlikely that we would see such an exciting and elegantly laid out character like Annie in a film of today.

I believe we have either forgotten where we come from or we did not know in the first place. Either way, it is important to be reminded. What I have noticed is that a certain percentage of the modern film community is just that: modern. And that is an unhealthy thing. If we are sitting around tweeting, blogging and posting about the place of women in film today but forget to mention that women in film have a very distinct timeline of their own, I can only think that there is a problem and it needs adjustment.

I don’t think one can think about the women who helped to create our moving image culture too much. Thus I have decided to write one profile a week about a woman in film culture who has significantly changed the face of moving images as you and I know them. Some of them you will be familiar with (like Bette Davis) and some of them you may have no clue about. But all of them are important. And all of them have had a hand in developing the world that is now woefully lacking in positive female representation and female employment.

I have decided to title this weekly column Common Careers based upon the quote from All About Eve. I am doing this not simply because all of the individuals do, indeed, share that “common career” of being a woman, but they also share the problematic nature that that quote itself possesses. I cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, pretend that Margo Channing’s statement is one of perfection; it is not. But then again, sometimes the best way to explore our hero(ine)s is through their flaws. I find that quote as fascinating for its dependence on heteronormativity as I do for its search for identity.

So join me won’t you? Each week we will look at a different woman and explore the females of the past and their impact on the future.

Welcome to Common Careers. I look forward to your company and hope you enjoy!

Get Into the Groove: Desperately Seeking Susan and Genre Revision

Whatever is funny is subversive, every joke is ultimately a custard pie… a dirty joke is a sort of mental rebellion.

            -George Orwell

When Susan Seidelman received a script entitled “Desperately Seeking Susan,” in 1985, it had already been floating around Hollywood for 4 years. When she saw the title, she knew that it was meant for her, practically sight unseen. The story, a screwball comedy with a feminist streak a mile wide, seemed almost too good to be true, especially considering who sent her the script, and who was already on board to support the film. Not only was the film’s content a powerful commentary on contemporary female identity, definitely unusual, but it was set to involve a female director (Seidelman), a female writer (Leora Barish), female producers (Sarah Pillsbury and Midge Sanford), two (at that point, uncast) female stars, and a female film executive (Barbara Boyle) who really fought for the production. For the time, that many powerful women involved in a single film production was almost unheard of. This was an incredible opportunity, and Seidelman answered their “want ad” with a resounding yes.

Susan Seidelman on the set of Desperately Seeking Susan

These days, what most people remember about Desperately Seeking Susan is not the multiplicity of ways that it subverts and reworks genres, nor the running commentary it gives on class and sexuality, but the fact that the film stars an extremely youthful and (at the time) barely known Madonna. Although Madonna is a crucial aspect of this production, I would like to present an analysis of the film that lays bare more than a mere “star vehicle” for Ms. Ciccone. I propose that Desperately Seeking Susan’s goal was to look at past film genres with strong female roles, and rework and “mesh” them into an entirely new kind of film; a film that was as much a new kind of  “Woman’s Film” as it was a good old romantic comedy.

In 1972, a little bit over 10 years before this film was made, the Equal Rights Amendment was passed, guaranteeing women equal rights. That same year, sex discrimination was banned in schools and in Eisenstadt vs. Baird, the Supreme Court guaranteed that the right to privacy included the single person’s right to use contraception. The next year, Roe vs. Wade gave women the right to safe and legal abortion, while the year after that saw the ruling of Corning Glass Works vs. Brennan, which ruled that employers cannot justify paying women a lower wage just because that is what they got at the “going market rate.” These years and the next few saw huge leaps for women and the feminist movement. It is no wonder that this film, made in 1985, would choose to make such a bold statement about wanting to break free from the suburban doldrums, a loveless marriage, and a life lived for someone else in favor of a life that is fulfilling, exciting, and personally rewarding.

The appearance of Desperately Seeking Susan after an entire film decade that had been devoted to the exploration and celebration of masculinity could not have been a huge surprise, however. With a few exceptions like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and a plentitude of underground experimental films, the 70’s film structure tended to focus on a cadre of young talented men, who were each expressing their own personal “vision.” The irony is that the explosion of feminism happened at the same historical moment, and it seemed to fall on deaf ears. Julie Christie notes, “What it seemed like to me was like boys had been let out of school. So it was like, ‘School’s out!’ so the energy was unbelievably high, and I think that is what characterizes North American filmmaking of the 70’s, is the energy. That inimitable American, male energy. And it’s fantastic, but it wasn’t a great time for women.”[1]  So, when an entire decade passed without recognition of the gender politics that were flying as fast at the bullets in Vietnam, women like Susan Seidelman decided that they had to bring their voice to the screen. Thus Desperately Seeking Susan was born.

It's a life so outrageous it takes two women to live it!!

Although Desperately Seeking Susan was criticized at the time for being “sheer nonsense despite the odd, forlorn laugh”[2] and the plot laughed off as “outrageously contrived,”[3] this film, which opened in March of 1985, made a very respectable amount of money on its opening weekend, and ended up as a big hit. The film tells the story of Roberta Glass (played by Rosanna Arquette), a bored and unhappy housewife from Fort Lee, New Jersey, obsessed with the personal ads, and Susan (played by Madonna), a carefree, somewhat promiscuous street-wise party girl, with a penchant for getting in trouble.  After Roberta reads several messages in the paper to Susan from Susan’s lover/boyfriend Jim, Roberta’s curiosity gets the best of her, and she goes looking for Susan, using the personals as her trail. What she doesn’t know is that Susan has gotten mixed up in a criminal scheme that even she isn’t aware of, and Roberta herself becomes enmeshed in the same scheme. After Roberta purchases a jacket that Susan sells to a second-hand shop, and gets a heavy bonk on the head while wearing the jacket, everyone (Roberta included- amnesia works wonders-) thinks that Roberta is Susan. Meanwhile, Susan ends up searching for Roberta, because inside the cast-off jacket is a key, literally, to her whole life which she has left in a locker. The rest of the film tells the tale of their search for each other, a criminal’s search for the stolen goods that “Susan” (really Roberta) possesses, as well as Roberta’s eventual self-discovery (in more than one way), through the very strangest parts of New York City.

Much of the theoretical work that has been done on this film involves ideas of identity, self-discovery, desire and female spectatorship. However, they all seem to hit on one aspect in passing that seems central to the viewing enjoyment of this film: Desperately Seeking Susan is not a “new” film. It is a child of many genres. Be that as it may, it still adds a new element. As Jackie Stacey notes in her essay comparing All About Eve to Desperately Seeking Susan, the central aspect of Susan (like Eve) is that it involves a heroine “whose desires and identifications move the narrative forward.”[4] Karen Hollinger, as well, has noted, “In many ways, Desperately Seeking Susan consciously revises conventions associated with earlier woman’s films.”[5] While other classic genres may have had central female characters, it is not often that an entire film’s progression is dependent upon the woman’s perspective. Due to that factor, we can see that this is where Susan makes liberal use of the genre of the “woman’s film.” Like Mildred Pierce or All About Eve or a multitude of other films in this genre, Desperately Seeking Susan does the precise thing that Mary Ann Doane has suggested is a central aspect of the woman’s film genre: it “obsessively centers and re-centers a female protagonist, placing her in a position of agency…”[6] By looking at the agency that is given to both female leads, we can see that the texture of the film was very much inspired by the desire to create a new film that would (and could) relate to contemporary women. Instead of the melodrama of the early women’s films, the makers of Desperately Seeking Susan replaced it with zany comedy and romance, thus bringing in yet another essential genre: the screwball comedy.

I would argue that the utilization of the female-character-as-driving-force serves as the glue to piece together a film that is essentially derivative of other genres, into a new film that is as self-conscious about its “quotations” as it is about its additive dimensions. However, the genre that is most present within the text of Desperately Seeking Susan is that of the screwball comedy.

Wes D. Gehring defines the screwball comedy of the 30’s and 40’s as possessing “five key characteristics of the comic antihero: abundant leisure time, childlike nature, urban life, apolitical outlook, and basic frustration (especially in relationships with women).”[7] While, for the majority of this discussion, I would ask that Gehring’s definition be opened up to include the term “comic heroine,” his analysis is quite helpful. Comparing Gehring’s definition of the screwball comedy to Desperately Seeking Susan, not only do the creators of the film take pause to recognize the screwball comedy influence[8], but at the time of release, one magazine went so far as to write, “Like the screwball comedies of yore, it [Desperately Seeking Susan] places people in a highly improbable situation and requires that they consult their own sorely tested inner logic to find a way out.”[9] The very fact that Susan came off as a screwball comedy to the naked eye is enough to link it to Gehring’s definition.

Seidelman’s film takes Gehring to an entirely new level, linking it to the strongly feminist discourse that is the backbone of this film. According to the definition, Roberta Glass fits Gehring’s description of the comic anti-heroine in the screwball, to a “T.”  Roberta has an abundance of leisure time (she is a suburban housewife), is portrayed as very childlike (even her husband infantilizes her, patting her on the head, etc), exists within urban confines (the majority of the film takes place not in Fort Lee, New Jersey, but on the crazy city streets of New York), has no overt political perspective (except to remember her real identity, which has a slightly political undercurrent), and is in the thick of an utterly frustrating relationship with Des (played by Aidan Quinn) on one side and Gary (played by Mark Blum), her husband, on the other side.

However, unlike the comic anti-heroes of Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels or Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby, the idea of a female-centered screwball comedy is somehow revolutionary. All of the assets that we would come to expect out of a male protagonist in one of these pictures come with very different attachments for a woman. Desperately Seeking Susan somehow manages to subvert genre conventions, and flip them on their respective heads. For example, the “leisure time” that Roberta supposedly has, is depicted with a rather ironic twist. From the opening shots of Roberta in the beauty salon to her visit to New York City, she is using her leisure time under the auspices of pleasing someone else: her husband.  It is not her leisure time; it is pointedly his.

Although Roberta clearly enjoys the luxury of the salon, an important section of the conversation there revolves around the fact that, while it is her birthday, she is concerned about how Gary will like her new haircut. Roberta isn’t too certain, as her look reveals. We can see Roberta straining against her confines, even here. The scene, opening up to the strains of a 1950’s girl band singing “It’s In His Kiss (the Shoop Shoop Song),” displays various women in various stages of being “beautified,” from leg-shaving, to nail-polishing, to hair-cutting. Susan Seidelman states,

           Because the film is very much about identity, who somebody is on the outside versus who they want to be on the inside, we decided to open the film in a beauty parlour because that is so much about female identity, and appearance and transformation. I think in the original script the opening was set in a department store…and ultimately, in one of the many rewrites, it was changed to a beauty salon because I think the idea of being remade, which is what beauty salons are about…you go in being one person and you come out hopefully transformed into somebody else, is really the essence of what the whole movie is about.[10]

Thus, amidst the highly feminized world of the salon and amidst reminders of all kinds of superficial beauty, we are introduced to our heroine. It is here that she does two things that solidly state her position in her world (which she reveals is not quite her world after all) and it is here that she begins to, as Seidelman discusses, transform. Initially, she relinquishes control of her haircut, because her sister-in-law, Leslie, and her hairdresser reassure her that, “He’ll love it.” However, it is at this point that she flat-out states her discontentment with her life. Sitting under the hairdryer, we watch as Roberta’s transformation begins.

She sighs, commenting on the love affair that she has been watching develop in the personal ads between two people named Jim and Susan (all the messages begin “Desperately seeking Susan”), “Desperate…I love that word…it’s so romantic…” To which her slightly horrified sister-in-law replies, “Everyone I know is desperate, except you,” and gestures at Roberta. Indignant, Roberta looks out from the hairdryer and says, “I’m desperate!” She is met with peals of laughter from Leslie, to which Roberta responds, “Sort of…” and looks dejectedly back at her newspaper. But the look turns into one that is almost akin to that of a stubborn child being told that they can’t do something: they’ll do it anyways, no matter the consequences. The next shot centers on Roberta’s fingers, holding a blood-red nail polish brush, circling the ad in the personals, with a very steady hand. Thus we have borne witness to the first stage of Roberta’s transformation and the beginning of her attempts to reclaim her own identity, from the people and the situations beneath which she has been living for a long time.

When she goes into the city the next day, Roberta’s husband asks her to pick up the car stereo for him, and remind the clerk that she is his wife, because they get a discount. It is almost as though Gary wants Roberta to remember, as she is leaving the stability of the suburban world for the chaos of New York. It seems that by saying this to her, he reminds her that she is his wife, and his property.  However, this is where the whole situation begins to change. When she reclaims this leisure time as her own, and uses it to pursue Susan, she forgets the car stereo, and, upon arriving back in Fort Lee, timed perfectly to the chicken beginning its twirl around the rotisserie and her housewife-ly duties of synchronized cooking with Julia Childs, her husband inquires about the stereo. This is the point where we realize that Roberta Glass has begun to break free of that ownership. Wearing the jacket that Susan sold to the vintage store and Roberta bought right after, mixing eggs in perfect time to Julia, she reveals to Gary that she has forgotten all about the stereo. She has repossessed that leisure time, both sartorially and actually. It should also be noted that visually, as well, she is the one in control. She is the one the camera follows, and through the different settings there is an evolution. She moves from a location that deprives her of personal power and agency to one where she willfully commands it, based upon personal desire. The personal desire to follow Susan overpowers everything else. That desire is so powerful, that she forgets the car stereo, and with it, forgets Gary’s claim upon her, in order to follow her claim upon herself. We as viewers are drawn into this world, into this location from which Roberta Glass operates, wanting nothing more than for her to escape, and supporting her desires above all else. We are desperate for her to become that “desperate” that she says she is.

Throughout the rest of the film, we are shown a number of ways in which Roberta is breaking free of her stuffy, suburban housewife life. She hits her head while running from the criminal who mistakes her for Susan, after he sees her wearing the jacket that used to belong to Susan. What the amnesia does is serve as a catalyst for the formation of a new and more pleasing personal identity for Roberta. Having to confront the fact that she does not know who she is, Roberta must “find herself.” She thinks she is Susan, being in possession of all of Susan’s personal effects through the locker key she finds in the jacket pocket, not to mention having people consistently mistake her for Susan, as a result of the jacket.

As we have seen, from the very beginning of the film, Susan is Roberta’s polar opposite. She is sexually liberal, streetwise, and self-assured. More importantly, from what we can see, Susan is also a great deal happier than Roberta. Roberta’s amnesia and subsequent quest for her true identity while thinking (and acting) as if she were Susan, becomes our way of seeing that Roberta’s emancipation from her life lived for others can only be achieved through her own self-discovery, even if it is through someone else’s “identity.” How can she escape Julia Childs and a husband who basically ignores her? She must leave it all behind, and become someone else, even if it is not intentionally. As Karen Hollinger succinctly states, “Roberta’s temporary assumption of Susan’s identity as a result of her amnesia allows her to merge with her ideal and experience a psychological rebirth. She finds a new identity by introjecting the positive qualities she finds in Susan into her own personality.”[11]

Frank Capra, a director of many screwball comedies, said that he used comedy to “warm people to my subject…I get them in the spirit of laughter and then, perhaps, they might be softened up to accept some kind of moral precept.”[12] The creators of Desperately Seeking Susan utilized this same method. It is a very funny film, but the message behind it cannot be ignored or denied. The feminism that may not have seen the light of day in the cinema of the 70’s is vibrant and alive with Arquette’s Roberta and Madonna’s Susan. It is a disruption of the traditional view of woman as homemaker, and a forced recognition of woman as full-fledged person, unto herself. This commanded viewpoint was done, a la Capra, through the use of casual humor and relaxed laughter.

Andrew Kopkind noticed that Desperately Seeking Susan was a film that was definitely communicated in “classic Hollywood forms. Leora Barish’s script contains all the ritual elements of farce, even to the obligatory climax where all the significant characters arrive in the same room to sort out the confusion…[but] neither she [Roberta/Arquette] nor Madonna [Susan] is redirected to a conventional existence, which is the way farces usually end…it is unmistakably a woman’s-eye view…”[13] The acknowledgement, then, is that this film, while standing on the shoulders of well-loved and received standards, is creating new standards of its own. Without changing the formula of what makes a screwball comedy pleasurable, Desperately Seeking Susan pulled a “Capra” and inserted some truly important things to think about, in between the laughs and the ridiculous nature of the plotline. And, after a decade of boys celebrating school being out, it was high time the girls hit the playground, and hit the playground they did.


[1] A Decade Under the Influence. Dir. Richard LaGravenese and Ted Demme. 2003. DVD. Independent Film Channel/Docurama/New Video Group, 2003.

[2] Simon, John. “Desperately Seeking Susan.” National Review 37 (1985): 48-50.

[3] Kopkind, Andrew. “Desperately Seeking Susan.” The Nation 240 (1985): 568.

[4] Stacey, Jackie. “Desperately Seeking Difference.” Feminism & Film. Ed. E. Ann Kaplan. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 450-464.

[5] Hollinger, Karen. In the Company of Women: Contemporary Female Friendship Films. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.

[6] Doane, Mary Ann. “The Woman’s Film: Possession and Address.” Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film. Ed. Christine Gledhill. London: British Film Institute, 1987.

[7] Gehring, Wes D. Screwball Comedy: A Genre of Madcap Romance. New York: Greenwood, 1986.

[8] Commentary track. Desperately Seeking Susan. Dir. Susan Seidelman. 1985. DVD. MGM Home Entertainment, 2000.

[9] Author Unknown. “Beautiful Dreamer in a Minefield- Rosanna Arquette.” Time 1 April 1985: 76.

[10] Seidelman, Susan. Commentary track. Desperately Seeking Susan. Dir. Susan Seidelman. 1985. DVD. MGM Home Entertainment, 2000.

[11] Hollinger, ibid.

[12] Frank Capra, quoted in Schiekel, Richard. The Man that Made the Movies. New York: Atheneum, 1975.

[13] Kopkind, ibid.