Not another gender war article. Women are disenfranchised by the patriarchy this, men are losing their masculine identities that. Media types run around in circles trying to be the first to declare who’s coming out the worse as the roles men and women take in Western society continue to resemble one another more and more. So when an article entitled “Warpaint, Cate Le Bon, St Vincent and why rock’s future is female” pops up on The Guardian the overpowering desire is to dismiss it outright. When it comes to creating art, what does gender have to do with it? Historically the ones who controlled the money decided what art got made, which largely accounts for women and non-whites being under-represented in the Western canon compared to white males. But surely it doesn’t matter in 2014 whether a songwriter is a man or a woman, they both should be equally as capable of creating the best work, or of being the future of rock.
But then, it’s hard to argue with the facts. At least four of the best albums of 2014 were composed by women (Wye Oak’s “Shriek”, Angel Olsen’s “Burn Your Fire For No Witness”, Yasmine Hamdan’s “Ya Nass” and St. Vincent’s eponymous release) and in 2013 some of the most original music was also made by women (Cate Le Bon, Laura Marling, Courtney Barnett, Haim). The truth is that this has more to do with new perspectives, which has always been the thing that pushed art forward. Those perspectives largely tend to be female in 2014, more because women in music aren’t quite as prone to the influence of the monied as they were ten years ago. Great music is written, recorded and consumed without the need for dictatorial taste-makers or cynical record company heads, who tend to assemble supermodels for their music groups rather than artists.
The fact that women are making great music is not up for debate. On the other hand, the position of the male perspective in all this is not so obvious. For John Harris in his above-linked article “[a]fter 60 years of rock history, it is perhaps little wonder that the form feels as if it is moving in ever-decreasing circles, split between either hopeless nostalgia…or going-through-the-motions irrelevance.” He doesn’t name-check any of the male-oriented bands he’s talking about here, besides Glastonbury headliners Metallica, who don’t need much investigation to be made look like a prime example of the irrelevance of testosterone-fuelled rock music. But whereas acts like Vampire Weekend and John Grant seem to contradict Harris’s point, its perhaps worth noting that he seems to be talking more about the irrelevancy of a form of music that defines itself by being primarily a masculine affair, which neither of those acts are.
It could be argued in fact that Harris is limiting his scope when he singles out women, as there is much more music being made outside the realm of white male music than white female music. Inevitably the democratisation of music through the internet will lead to Western audiences finding artists from Africa or the Middle East. Yasmine Hamdan is a fine example of this, as the Lebanese singer has gained a certain level of popularity in the West since her appearance in Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’. If what music audiences want is different perspectives then any number of them are out there to be discovered.
So how does this apply itself to cinema? While the music-making process is not as susceptible to the influence of malignant moneymen as it once was, film-making is still very much about a clash of interests. The paths a female director needs to navigate to realise her film is very much like what it was for a female musician to create in the ’70s. Where a female musician at one time had to impress an A&R man, the record label head, the studio producer and a whole murder of music journalists before being presented to an audience, now an artist can achieve popularity with an audience without having set foot in a recording studio, and so the record labels and music media scramble to catch up.
With films however, the process of dealing with actors, DPs, producers, screenwriters, production designers and whoever else, means a strong personality is necessary to achieve one’s vision. As Harris describes in his article about the band Warpaint, “[their] music is exploratory, deeply textured, and less prone to momentary explosions. Some critics fail to understand, but the point is not to wait anxiously for the “Yeah, yeah” chorus: what they are trying to create is a different musical form.” If this is in any way indicative of how female-oriented films are made, then is it the case that perhaps many would-be female directors anticipate the obstacles to their vision and opt quite simply not to bother? So when a woman does direct a film we get a male-oriented picture like ‘The Hurt Locker’ and Hollywood gets to hold it up as a great leap forward in gender equality while the female perspective remains unrepresented.
A graphic on Indiewire recently did up the numbers and found that only 4.7% of Hollywood studio films were directed by women between 2009 and 2013. This damages cinema as a whole, as – if what John Harris observes about male-oriented rock music is true – new perspectives are closed off before they are even able to be realised, and cinema will continue its inward spiral. American cinema in the ’70s was highly male-oriented, but it was also the most exciting time in the history of American cinema. What’s happened since then has largely been a cheap copy of Hollywood’s 1970s prime, and at no point since then has a strong female (or black, or Hispanic) movement occurred in American cinema. Almost everything has been a derivation of what was done in that decade.
A Simple Enquiry
There is little a white male can do to bring more black or female directors into the field. What is in his control is his ability to break out of that inward spiral and to explore other avenues of creating work that is more inclusive of differing perspectives than the one he comes from, the one that has been explored to the point of redundancy. The collaborative nature of cinema makes it so that a director need not be the defining voice of a given film. The auteur theory is based on the classical Hollywood studio system’s manner of film production; one man who is responsible for predicting the way an audience will react to certain scenes or shots or characters and communicating a message of some description.
The Cahier du Cinema critics and film-makers made the director the author of whatever film his name was on and the New Hollywood directors of the ’70s took this to heart. However, other interesting perspectives on how films can be made began to emerge in Iran in the ’90s. Directors such as Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf began to mix documentary and drama film-making, often telling true stories by having the people the stories are about play themselves and re-enact their own stories. This was taken to its natural conclusion in Kiarostami’s 2002 film ‘Ten’ in which he stuck two digital cameras to the dashboard of a car – one pointing at the driver seat, the other at the passenger – and recorded ten conversation between a woman living in Tehran and the people she meets over the course of the day.
In the follow-up film ’10 on Ten’ Kiarostami describes how the film attempted to remove the director’s influence from the scenes, claiming he wasn’t even in the car while the shooting occurred. The conversations in the film take on a naturalness not found in scripted dramas, but then it is not exactly a straight documentary either, because the conversations in the film are instigated by the director. Mania Akbari is the one character who appears in all ten conversations and her real life situation is used in the film; a divorce from her husband and the problems this causes between her and her real-life son. Despite being directed by a man, the film ends up being one of the greatest expressions of the female perspective in the history of cinema.
Taking this method of film-making to a new extreme Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2013 ‘The Act of Killing’ imposes his own creative devices on a number of war criminals in Indonesia, having them act out their atrocities in the form of their favourite Hollywood films. Again, the people in front of the camera are the main focus of the film, not the director who merely uses his creative devices like a skilled interviewer to get his subjects to reveal themselves. In his 2014 film ‘American Hustle’ David O. Russell gives the method a more Hollywood bent; his film is traditionally structured around plot movements, but the actors are regularly allowed to improvise their lines. The result is proof that a director guiding actors through a story rather than merely having the actors obey a director’s strict vision can make a traditionally entertaining Hollywood film and make it the best American film of the year.
Effectively the death of the auteur is the death of filmed novels. No longer are actors merely there to reanimate the corpse of an emotion. Their interactions become real, their emotions are, if not true, then at least their own, and not an attempt to replicate somebody else’s. That’s not to say scripted dramas are worthless, as is seen in one of the year’s best films, Asghar Farhadi’s ‘The Past’. But in those instances it is the plot rather than the characters that takes prominence, meaning the best scripted dramas are melodramas, which, by definition are not masculine in their outlook. They – like Warpaint’s music – are deeply exploratory, always looking to disrupt their own realities, more concerned with what is explicit than what is buried. The emotional austerity of the male-driven film is focused on the lead character’s attempts to overcome the obstacles of the story, whereas in a melodrama the characters – usually women – must simply navigate them and try to come out the other side alive.
Running out of Road
The white male perspective has given us some great films in the past, but in recent years it’s given us laughable and narcissistic representations of masculinity in films like ‘Django Unchained’, ‘The Great Beauty‘ and ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ as well as films in which white men cast their impressions of what poor people think and act like such as ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild‘ and ‘The Rocket‘ as well as out-right racist films such as ‘The Impossible‘. These films put the director in the spotlight and each one exactly conforms to the idea of male-oriented cinema being caught in an inward spiral. ‘Django Unchained’ is part of Tarantino’s continuing effort to dilute all of the world’s problems into cartoons, ‘The Great Beauty’ is Sorrentino bemoaning the loss of the kind of masculinity that brought Silvio Berlusconi into the Italian presidency, while ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ is Scorsese attempting and failing to do for white collar criminals what he did for Italian gangsters in ‘Goodfellas’.
Whether you like the films or not is irrelevant. The fact is that they fail to give us anything original, because the respective directors are not using their art-form for exploration, but for self-expression. Seeing that in 2014 we receive constant streams of information from war-torn Syria, Iraq, and Central African Republic, what can this antiquated “Cinema of the Self” appear to the viewer as but an indulgent embarrassment on the part of the “auteur”? White men making movies about white men has run its course. The way we think about how ideas for films are conceived has to change. The jumping off point can no longer be “what do I want to say?”, it has to be “what do I want to discover?”.
Who’s Invited to the Party?
This was written as a suggestion of what white males can do to stay relevant to cinema as it moves forward, but there’s no reason women or non-whites can’t take directorial roles in this manner. The overall point is that who the director is becomes largely irrelevant to the story being told. These films can be directed by men but be about women if the women in the film are allowed to speak for themselves, as they are in ‘Ten’. The director must cede his role as dictator to that of organiser and creative driving force. It will still fall to the director to choose the right people to turn the original idea into a finished product, but the director will no longer create “filmed novels”, entirely reliant on his or her vision. These films will be a form of “open cinema”, vulnerable to the creative influences of those in front of the camera, or indeed, to anyone working on the film with an idea.