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Our Lives, Our Bodies: 1980s Women Filmmakers, in Hollywood and Beyond

A wide survey of American films directed by women underscores the diversity of styles and storytelling in the 1980s.
Smooth Talk. Courtesy of Janus Films/Photofest
The new retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), "Punks, Poets, and Valley Girls" offers such an abundance of stylistic and narrative through-lines that it’s hard to distill them. This is partly the point of the BAM programmer Jesse Trussell: that if you forego focusing on commonly consecrated auteurs, suddenly the 1980s yield not a dearth or a trickle but rather a flood of films by women.
If there’s one thing to be said about these films it’s that their sexual and identity politics are as rich as you’d expect them to be—from L.A Rebellion films, by filmmakers such as Monona Wali, that address communal demands for justice, to the feminist films of Lizzie Borden and Donna Deitch, to the quieter, more ambiguous works, such as Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk (1985), an assured debut, and a lean, searing adaptation of a short story by Joyce Carol Oates.
In the film, a very young Laura Dern plays Connie, a precocious fifteen-year-old, who on the surface has no patience for her mother’s nagging, or her sister’s superiority. In opposition to these two women—one who complains about not getting enough help in the household from Connie, and the other who seems to have intellectually outgrown housewife aspirations—Connie is stuck in giddy nowhere-land, and in an open rebellion against her mother’s demands that she think of her future. Connie would rather spend her days at the mall, cruising with friends and flirting with boys.
Although Connie’s hormones make her yearnings blunt enough to border on desperation, Chopra’s film is not a pan of teenage lust. Thanks to Dern’s uncanny ability to go ingénue to vixen and back, in a beat, it shows just how ephemeral, slippery, and sexual desire can be, and all the emotional vulnerability this ephemerality entails. Connie’s first real near-sexual encounter ends in her running out on her date, frightened by her own excitement. And when a mysterious older driver shows up at Connie’s home, while her family is out, the games suddenly turn very dark. The entire film transitions from a sympathetic social satire of a young and drifting milieu, to a portrait of a devastating entrapment that presages our #MeToo decade.
The light-infused cinematography by James Glannon never abates, even in most startling moments, and so catches us off-guard, as Connie’s world suddenly pulls away from the innocence and protection of her family home. Chopra not just leaves it clear that, for all her precocity, what happens to Connie is a vicious crime—a message that strikes directly at Hollywood itself, and all its historic casualness about sex with minors—but she also makes us present in the very moment when Connie realizes that her fantasy world, her selfhood, is being violated. Through Connie’s point of view, as we are asked to inhabit that space, right under her skin, and in her young mind, the difference between games among peers and adult predation couldn’t be more diametrically or more brutally opposed.
Bette Gordon’s frightfully smart Variety (1983) takes us in a different direction, but also with sexual politics at heart. Sandy McLeod plays Christine, a young woman strapped for money, who takes a job selling tickets at a porn cinema. Gordon’s film is then a story of a woman exploring her secret desires, as Christine becomes obsessed with one of the cinema’s frequent customers—an older businessman, who gallantly buys her coffee, and asks her out to a ball game, to then dump her to attend to an urgent business. Christine, who knows from her boyfriend about an illegal kickbacks racket happening in the city’s fish warehouses, follows the strange businessman around to figure out his involvement in it. When, at the end, she uses blackmail to again set up a meeting with him, we sense that the scales have shifted, but are nevertheless left wondering what Christine could be after.
Gordon’s film is a lovely, opaque puzzle, and at least some of suggests that Christine doesn’t entirely know what motivates her—she is more of an instinctive explorer and shifter, although clearly intrigued by all that power and role-playing that permeate the movie theater realm, but aren’t necessarily hers. From the start, Christine’s position is marginal, but that marginality doesn't come with any preset connotations—on the contrary, it’s a new area for Christine to test out just how assertive she can be, in a world dominated by men.
Gordon frames the noirish main plot by more casual talks of women in a bar. She’s too smart to roll out a banner for women embracing sex work as sexual liberation, and instead offers a concrete conversation between Christine and her friends—one of whom works as a stripper—to get hard facts on how much women make in the biz. Another talk centers on the impossibility of finding viable partners—all the more poignant, since one of the conversants is the immediately recognizable photographer, Nan Goldin, who’s authored the slideshow series, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, one of the iconic works of the 1980s Lower East Side, with Goldin herself at the center, as an abused lover. In Gordon’s film, Goldin plays a bartender, while it’s Christine who takes the shady parlors and porn shops as a chance to try out her artsy alter-ego—in a pointed, ironic scene, Christine recites some lines of her erotic writing, with a young man playing pinball next to her, and paying no attention to her efforts. Christine’s invisibility as a creative is in contrast to the attention that her physical attractiveness elicits wherever she goes. Gordon thus crafts a rich, subaltern world, whose deep neon contrasts become a metaphor for Christine’s self-empowerment, wrestling for recognition.
Control of women’s bodies, specifically black women’s, is pervasive in Maureen Blackwood’s brilliant A Perfect Image (1988), a thirty-minute fiction short, which moves from representations of black women in a gallery—the show’s black-and-white aesthetics idealizing but possibly also removing the women from original historical contexts—to the offices of fashion agencies, in which secretaries take quick breaks from their duties, to speak directly to the camera. What they say—about beauty, and preferable shades of lipstick and eye shadow for black women—shows just how difficult it is for women to escape poisonous associations, in a world in which the beauty industry isolates and codifies individual body parts. Blackwood’s film isn’t sparing about internalized racism either, with the long history of representation of lighter skin tones as more desirable.
Blackwood’s film is a collage of pastiche sound bites and brief vignettes, punctuated by women singing, from a video-clip to a vaudeville act—a wild ride through sometimes brute and sometimes sly stereotypes, to which black women are subjected. A gorgeous, polyphonic work, it shows the commodification of women’s bodies, and color, at every turn. As a wink to the viewer—and a play with cinema conventions—Blackwood breaks down the fourth wall. Late in the film, two beautiful women turn to the camera, while in the voiceover a woman speaks lushly, “I know, you expect a happy ending (…). Here it is.” The two women repeat, “I love myself,” while the camera glides over their bodies, in a mock titillation of high-fashion shoots.
Similarly to Variety, A Perfect Image eventually lands on the camaraderie of women, as they undo their makeup backstage, literally and metaphorically letting their hair down—a gesture that suggests that one of the great contributions that women made to cinema in the 1980s, and continue to make today, is using a camera to peer backstage, and unpeel the masks that Hollywood has fixed them.
"Punks, Poets & Valley Girls: Women Filmmakers in 1980s America" runs August 7 - 20, 2019 at New York's BAM.

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