Women Behind the Lens

It’s National Woman’s Month! So I thought I’d get cracking on some female directors. So far I’ve seen two female helmed films, and both were pretty dandy. Let’s work our way up quality wise, starting with Dorothy Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance (1940).

When people think of the first woman director to hit the Hollywood system, Arnzer is usually left forgotten, left in the shadow of Ida Lupino who was both a star and a director. Only have seen one film apiece, I can only compare Outrage (1950) with Dance, Girl, Dance (1940). If anything, it’s not really fair to even do so. Outrage is not considered one of Lupino’s best films, and the circumstances of it’s being made are a lot cheaper than Arnzer’s studio produced work. In nearly every level, Lupino’s film falls short. The only thing I can say in it’s credit, is that it’s one of the few and first films to deal with the effects of rape on a woman, although the word is never even said.

Dance, Girl, Dance is still a b-picture by studio standards. A lot of it seems to be testing grounds for new talent like Lucille Ball and Maureen O’Hara, as well as cheap and easy entertainment. It’s not a great film, but rather an entertaining one with some interesting suggestions and ideas. The film does seem to have a more feminist perspective than one would usually find from films of the era, although I’m not quite sure it jumps out as being the work of a woman… not that it really matters. It’s similar to Stage Door, which was released a few years before and also happens to feature Ball, although not as polished or interesting. It revolves around the lives of woman in show business, notably burlesque with an infusion of exploitation and melodrama.

The only truly interesting sequence is when O’Hara, who is Ball’s “stooge” (an act that is a joke, only used to make the lead stronger and more exciting) confronts the audience asking them to look at themselves and to consider their infantile and detached reactions to the performers. In a sly turn, she also mentions that while they may be laughing at her, she’s laughing back. The only difference is, she’s paid to laugh. It’s a rather clever stab at movie audiences, among others, and seems as though Arzner is not entirely satisfied with her position. In fact, just three years later she would retire entirely from film without any apparent reason.

It’s interesting to note, while doing some reading I noticed that Arzner actually directed the first all-talkie film at Warner Brothers Wild Party starring Clara Bow and Fredric. I actually have a copy of it, and may just watch it by the time the month is over. Overall the film is certainly interesting and is worth checking out for some laughs, and for interest. If you want to read a much more concise and better written review of Dance, Girl, Dance head over to Film Canon one of my favourite sites for recommendations.

The second film for the Women of the Month was Cleo 5 a 7 (1962), a New Wave film directed by Agnes Varda. While I’m a huge fan of the French New Wave, this is my first Varda film. It took me a dozen minutes or so to become involved, but by the time the film was over I was entirely taken in by it. Compared to Truffaut or Godard, both of whom I’m quite familiar with, this film is incredibly polished. Varda was a member of the second group of New Wavers who were not critics, but rather documentarist, experimental filmmakers and editors during the 1940s. While what I love about Godard’s and Truffaut’s earlier work is that sense of improvisation and discovery, seeing that style adapted to something so calculated and professional also has its charms.

The film is effectively told in real time, as a young and beautiful French singer awaits the results of a medical test. She is worried it will be cancer and that she will die, or worse lose her looks. The film reflects this anxiety, as well as Cleo’s duality through the ongoing motif of reflections and mirrors. They play a huge world in perception, as the audience is never quite sure if we are looking at truth, or simply a reflection of it. It’s this critical interpretation of cinema and forcing the audience to be aware of the falsity that really lends the film to the movement. Varda also incorporates jump cuts, although not with the same jarring sensibility as Godard did. They’re often so subtle that you feel as though you blinked and missed something, really you’re never quite sure when they happen unless your energies are completely focused.

The film is quite dense, especially in the first act. Cleo is not the most sympathetic of protagonists, and comes across as irrational, vain and self-centred. This is accented by her voice overs, as well as the surrounding worries of death and war in Algeria. She is blind to the world around her. This however only makes the final half hour all the more emotional and all around wonderful. The film makes that transition to something far more emotionally satisfying beginning with a film featuring Karina and Godard. A faux-silent, it’s light and cheerful. It lifts your spirits for a moment, capturing the joy and escapism of Hollywood entertainment to a tee. The joy is not felt very long however, and within moments Cleo is brought back to reality as she remembers the circumstance of her little out of home adventure. I think this plays with the idea of film as escapism, weighing it’s effectiveness against the reality. It doesn’t make a real judgment on the viewers, but rather suggests that a little something more is needed. Regardless seeing Karina as a doll and Godard making fun of his own image (notably the dark sunglasses) are adorable.

Cleo then goes on to meet a French serviceman who is on his way back to Algeria. She says under normal circumstances she would never talk to any man who approaches her, but because of her unhappiness she was not as aware. The man never stops talking, and while hardly unattractive he has a humble and cheerful face that feels out of place in the cold world Cleo has built around her. This final sequence is incredible and warming as Cleo is disarmed of her fear because of this man’s presence. It’s a very warming and romantic sequence as two people fall in love almost instantaneously. It plays into fiction of cinema, but then again is more in vein with the anti-Hollywood romance than with the general romantic plot. It’s these scenes that made me truly fall in love with Cleo 5 a 7, that might figure among my favourites if given some thought.

2 responses to “Women Behind the Lens

  1. For the sake of name dropping who my feminist professors at Columbia told me to, an important early woman filmmaker that I think goes overlooked is Alice Guy Blache. Lots of working before the studio system, but she has lots of important work that many silent experts even overlook.

    Great post here though. You really highlight some important stuff. Keep up the great work (and feel free to stop by my page sometime!)

  2. I’ve never heard of her! I don’t even reckonize any of her films, I’ll make some efforts to check out more of her stuff though. It ought to be interesting.

    I certainly will, at a glance looks pretty good 😀

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