May 23, 2009

If these are the best female filmmakers, we're in trouble

My yearning to see more female directors / women's stories out there is one typically met with frustration and disappointment, but equally frustrating and disappointing is how this deficiency is approached and discussed. For instance, here's my response to the Women's Film Critic Circle awards, which in an effort to speak out against the lack of representation just ended up making us all look bad. And now, from across the pond, we have this embarassment: a feature in the Guardian about female directors. Now, if this was just an article proving that female filmmakers exist, it would be fine. All the ladies listed have made 1-3 feature films (with the exception of Gurinder Chadha, who has made 5), and of those, most have only one movie of acclaim or quality, or none at all. But what's this? They kick off the individual profiles with "These are six of the very best."


Okay, let's break this down. Andrea Arnold won an Oscar for best short film, released her first feature, Red Road, in 2006 to okay reviews but no real recognition, and now has a film buzzing at Cannes. Little early to deem her a prophet. Nadine Labaki made only one movie, 2007's Caramel, which got pretty good reviews but again, is one movie. Her profile is suspiciously padded with influences and interests, and the suggestion that she doesn't have anything in the works. Chadha, the most prolific of the bunch, did make a huge splash with 2002's Bend it Like Beckham, which got good reviews and made, to use industry terms, an assload of money. But nobody really cared about her other movies. Kelly Reichardt is probably the most deserving woman on the list, since everything she's done has swept festivals and made the critics pee themselves with delight. Kasi Lemmons released a few features to big yawns, and Jennifer Lynch has one atrocious (like, 3.9 on IMDB and commonly found in the "Cult" section of video stores atrocious) movie under her belt, Boxing Helena, and another maybe okay one. Oh, and she has an upcoming fantasy/horror movie about snake people that doesn't exactly scream Oscar.

My point is, if the directors on this list were male, it would be pathetic. The list is almost condescending - it's bending down to these directors, patting them on the back and saying, "Oh, you made an okay movie or two, little female director? You are the future of cinema! You're so special, yes you are!" I would much rather that this article did not exist at all then have it exist but lower the bar. Equality will only come when we hold female director's accomplishments to the same standards of their male counterparts.

This article also, whether intentionally or not, gives a clue to why there are not as many female directors. After all, it's 2009. It's not like women don't stand a chance unless they sleep their way to the top. People aren't going to approach them on a film set and tell them to bake a pie. But there's a quote from documentary filmmaker Anne Aghion, who says "it would have been impossible to combine my career and the accompanying 16-hour days with any kind of family life." Bam. Even though it's 2009, most women still want kids. They want to raise those kids and be moms. I know this because whenever I say that I don't want kids, people are appalled and ask why, and then brush me off by saying I will inevitably change my mind. (But I digress).

Here's another radical idea: maybe not as many women want to be directors. After all, it's not like they're not afraid to be top dogs. There are female producers up the wazoo, with most blockbusters or Best Picture nominees sporting at least one. So I'm not sure we can still blame The System for keeping them down.

In conclusion, I just wish this issue was addressed with honesty. Don't sugarcoat someone's accomplishments just because they have a cooter. And don't act like every woman on earth would be a director if she could, but a vast government conspiracy is keeping them from it.

May 13, 2009

Favorite cinematic New Yorks

I am going to move to New York City this September. Aside from a few visits, I have to admit that most of what I know about the city comes from movies. Unlike many other cities, both in the U.S. and worldwide, New York has the unique distinction of not really being cinematically pigeonholed (at least in American cinema). There is not just one New York on screen. Whereas LA is always slick and commercial, Chicago is always seedy, Boston is always teeming with blue-collar criminals, anywhere in Italy or France is always achingly romantic, and anywhere in urban Asia is always hustling and bustling, New York can be any number of things. Even though certain representations come up often, you can still hop onto Netflix and find a whole range of cinematic New Yorks, from the glamorous to the gritty. Below are some of my favorite versions of New York on screen. My criteria was basically that the location had to factor into the film - that it would change the feeling of the film if it took place somwhere else. The story couldn't be insulated from its environment. For example, even though Rear Window technically takes place in NYC, you probably wouldn't be able to tell because really it just takes place in one apartment. So that wouldn't count. Also, for the sake of focus, I'm keeping it limited to Manhattan - diving into the other boroughs is a whole other barrel of monkeys. (And the other boroughs are typically depicted in a more narrow light than Manhattan - i.e. you don't see too many fluffy romantic comedies set in the Bronx). Finally, note that this not a list of the best movies that are set in New York, but the best representations of New York on film. This list is by no means exhaustive; it is meant to spark discussion.

The Crowd (1927)
People often go to the big city to become somebody, but what if that doesn't work out? King Vidor's heartbreaking silent film exposes the lie of the American dream, and gives the audience a New York of
dead-end jobs at nameless companies and tiny apartments with fold-out beds. But it also gives us the classic ending where a huge crowd of New Yorkers escapes their troubles by laughing the night away in a movie theater. It's unflinching, but hopeful.

Gold Diggers of 1933 (um, 1933)
People tend to think during the Great Depression, culture was completely decimated and everyone was just sitting in a pile of dirt. While that was definitely true for a lot of people, it's often forgotten that there was still a lot of decadent glamour in the upper sets. There were still opulent spectacles on Broadway and in theaters. So this film gives an interesting dichotomy wherein the characters are devising ways to steal their neighbor's breakfast so as not to go hungry, but then hopping between sparkly roles on Broadway. This New York is glitzy but full of scrappy folks who want to entertain but also just want to eat.

On The Town (1949)
Three sailors are seeing New York for the first time, and the attractions are larger than life - from the Museum of Natural History to flashy 1940s nightclubs (by the way, can they bring those back?). But the real draw is the women - lustful, confident, brassy and unabashedly Manhattanite.

Guys and Dolls (1955)
Unlike the previous musical I mentioned, people are less starry-eyed in this city. This film depicts the lives of gamblers and criminals, but without danger and brutality. Gamblers are people too, and they have marital and job woes like the rest of us. Similarly, the head of a religious mission can't fill the seats anymore. Everyone has problems in this New York, but they solve them with dancing and love.

The Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Here's a New York full of backstabbers and huge egos. James Wong Howe's incredible black and white cinematography captures the city in all its grit and despair.

The French Connection (1971)
Because, ya know, sometimes you just gotta dress up like Santa to kick people's asses. There's the classic car chase, of course, but also a great dive bar with motown music, gritty cinematography and even grittier people.

Taxi Driver (1976)
Duh. Kid prostitutes and psychopaths, with dreamlike shots of driving down the dirty streets. An ode to the seedy unberbelly of the city, it still manages to be strangely lyrical while detailing the toll it can take on its denizens.

Manhattan (1979)
Even though this is technically a romantic dramedy, it's really more of a love letter to a city. Although that can be said of many Woody Allen films, it is probably most clear here, from the black and white cinematography to the opening voiceover with Gershwin to the iconic shot under the Queensborough Bridge.

When Harry Met Sally (1989)
A nice tour of a romantic New York through the seasons, and the film that immortalized Katz's Deli forever. Even if the Harry Connick Jr. soundtrack does get a bit cheesy...

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
This film came under criticism for, among other things, depicting New York unrealistically (it was in fact shot primarily in London). That's not the point. The whole film has a dreamlike quality, and an unsettling quality - things aren't supposed to be quite right. This is a New York where everyone has secrets, from benign to dangerous and disturbing. You also rarely see daylight, which adds to the creepy vibe.

Zoolander (2001)
Underground walk-offs hosted by David Bowie? Past-fixated hand models lurking in graveyards? Mugatu?! This is one zany city. Zany and awesome.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
This isn't real New York, this is Wes Anderson's New York - he even went so far as to have an actor stand directly in front of the Statue of Liberty in one shot, and have made-up addresses. But he makes it his quirky own, and I wouldn't doubt that people like this really exist in NY.

Spider-Man (2002) and sequels
Everything is bright and efficient here. Jonah Jameson runs a snappy newspaper, the pizzas better be delivered on time and Spidey always saves the day.

Igby Goes Down (2002)

Shows the bohemian side of the city, in a subtler and more realistic way than say, Rent.

25th Hour (2002)
The main character, Monty, delivers an infamous "fuck you" monologue to everything in the city you could think of, from the Korean grocers to the "Gordon Gekko wannabe motherfuckers" on Wall Street, which many viewers actually read as a kind of perverted love letter. In a way, the film is Spike Lee's Manhattan.

Sex and the City (2008)
Okay, so this is kind of cheating, because I didn't see the movie. But I did see every episode of the show, and I figure the movie had a similar thing going on. So yeah, it's kind of a fantasy, but that's what makes it so fabulous. And hey, maybe people really do wear Manolo Blahniks to the convenience store. Plus, most of the places they go are real, so it can't be totally made up. But it's pretty much the authority on Manhattan glamour.

Watchmen (2009)

The anti-Spiderman New York, if you will. It's an alternate, dystopian 1985, where Nixon is still the president and America won the Vietnam War. It's bleak as all hell, but still has the vividness of a graphic novel come to life. Plus it has a restaurant called the Gunga Diner, which is awesome.

What are your favorite cinematic New Yorks?

May 4, 2009

Is this actually a movie? #5

I present to you: Tiptoes. This movie is absolutely real and is from 2003. It appears to have gone straight to DVD. Plenty of movies go straight to DVD, I realize, but this is unusual due to its star-studded cast.

The hyperbolic praise of Gary Oldman's performance is what really made this trailer seem fake. But no, here's the IMDB page: . Special thanks to my lovely boyfriend Scott for alerting me to the existence of this gem.