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"It’s Just a Job": The New York Woman in the Workforce

Films by Chantal Akerman, Lizzie Borden, & Bette Gordon best represent the alternative to New Hollywood for telling women's stories.
Willow Catelyn Maclay
Illustration by Sergio Membrillas
Legendary film critic Molly Haskell once wrote after seeing Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather that the final image of the film where Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) has the door closed on his wife, Kay (Diane Keaton), to conduct a business meeting has “reverberated through our culture” ever since. In terms of movies Haskell is specifically referring to the image’s metaphorical power of representing the course Hollywood would take in ignoring women for what is now, nearly fifty years. The image of Michael shutting the door essentially forces Kay into the fringes of his life and therefore the narrative of the movie, and I agree with Haskell that it has proven to be one of the more useful images in all of Hollywood, and filmmaking in general, ever since. What is ironic about the appearance of this culturally significant image in the early 70s is that it is in complete opposition to what second wave feminists were fighting for at the time. While feminists certainly have more important goals than whatever is going on in cinema, it is unfortunate that we still find ourselves in lock-step with the echoes of New Hollywood even today. We’ve just replaced the hyper-masculinity of something like motorcycle pictures with super-heroes. There have always been great movies about women, but it has since been increasingly hard to find them at multiplexes and theatres beyond the art house. The Quad Cinema’s “New York Woman” series is beautiful and captivating because it begs us to look deeper than Hollywood and see that despite being in the margins there has always been great cinema made by and about women. If anything, it is a testament to how we have always thrived. The margins are where our stories are passed down and told for centuries. The film industry only puts that truth in spotlight.
There are three films in particular playing during the New York Woman series which best represent that very tumultuous time period in American (specifically New York) history for women. These films are News From Home (1977), Chantal Akerman’s landmark documentary poem on being a daughter and trying to thrive, Lizzie Borden’s comedy on sex work, Working Girls (1986), and Variety (1983), Bette Gordon’s sleazy neo-noir look into the space women occupy in a sexual world. Each of these pictures deal with women entering the workforce or trying to make it in a profession and having it affect them in a cataclysmic way, and all three were unsurprisingly made outside of the confines of Hollywood. 
During World War II, while American men were on the battlefield’s, women were largely at home and joining the workforce taking over jobs in factories and campaigning for war bond donations to help fuel the efforts overseas. In doing so, women by and large realized they could handle the same jobs that men could and when men wanted their jobs back after the war was finished women were left in the awkward position of returning to their old lives with this new revelation about themselves. This was the genesis of second-wave feminism; what would follow was Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), a sexual revolution, the right to choose, and re-entering the workforce. Mainstream cinema as always is little late to touch on the pulse of current events, but outside of the Hollywood system radical work was being done by directors like Barbara Loden, Barbara Hammer, Yvonne Rainer and Chantal Akerman.
Chantal Akerman’s New York Films films (Hotel Monterey, La Chambre, , and News from Home),made from between 1971-1976, are some of her most daring work, with News from Home being perhaps her greatest work of art. News from Home is comprised of long, sometimes static, shots of the city and its residents as they go about their daily tasks. Throughout all of these longer takes Chantal’s mother can be heard in voice over talking to her daughter, hoping she listens to her stories back home and telling her how much she misses her. It’s the voice over which gives the film its resolute power and makes the image complicated. Chantal has chased this city for her own artistic benefit: , and these images are all it represents and the voice over is everything she has sacrificed in by doing so. Chantal’s mother misses her daughter, and Akerman smartly never responds directly in film to anything her mother says, instead merely presenting the city and the messages in a blunt, matter of fact way. As the film passes, the voice over becomes more infrequent the sound of the city drowning drowns out her Akerman’s own mother. The screech of an old bus’s faulty breaks become “I love you” and the echoing void of the subway are in place of “I miss you.”. It’s a stunning portrait of urban alienation and the way things change when leaving the nest of motherhood. Akerman has always been a filmmaker whose interests lie in contextual images, and her version of New York City isn’t a thriving, jazzy wonderland, but one of concrete, monolithic buildings and rising trash. The people she films are isolated from one another, each going about their own daily business in the city and more often than not expressionless and closed off. This is not the New York of Hollywood, but the New York she saw, which only makes her mother’s grief over not seeing her daughter all the more haunted, and moving. Chantal Akerman made exactly the art she needed to in New York City. It was distinctly of the place, of the time, and personal, down to her anxieties of displacement and alienation among people and temporary homes she never understood while grappling with a job she was just beginning to master. Her only real sanctuary was her mother’s voice.  
Chantal Akerman’s filmmaking style and ethos would echo from this point forward. One disciple in particular was a young Lizzie Borden. Borden, like Akerman, forces audiences to ask themselves questions regarding a woman’s place in the image. Chantal was always interested in the idea of what women do when men aren’t around, and in a cinematic context that’s a thesis that had rarely been explored before Akerman’s epochal Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975), Jeanne Dielman which gave weight to images and feminine- gendered tasks that were deemed uncinematic by the entirety of filmmaking up to that point. Borden takes a similar approach but applies it to sex work. Traditionally sex work is presented as an empathy point for filmmakers in the grand scope of a woman’s tragedy in melodramatic cinema. There are directors who handled this well, like the great Kenji Mizoguchi, but more frequently it’s a short cut to elevated stakes and weak storytelling while also reinforcing tropes about sex work that are actively harmful to the people who have the job in real life. For Lizzie Borden  she keys in on the fact that it’s just a job, stripping the cinematic history of sex work bare and presenting it in the matter of fact way it is in reality where women wait and shoot the shit inbetweenin between boring, unsatisfying forays into sex. Here, it’s just a job. It’s no different than McDonald’s. You go to work, you get paid, the money is never good enough, and you go home.  
Working Girls follows Molly (Louise Smith), a lesbian in a bisexual relationship, as she goes about her daily work life as a sex worker in New York City. The daily grind involves stocking up on condoms, making sure her lingerie is in order and cleaning her genitals before getting down to work. It’s a boring job and her friends seem to think so too. Borden emphasizes this with long stretches where the image stays mostly static as characters just sit in a living room talking about the daily grind. The characters have their own language associated with the business, but it’s never explained; their rhythm together makes their work and language like part of a secret club. The girls typically have each other’s back, even in the sex scenes. For example, one man wants a threesome, but when Molly and her friend go into a bedroom to work he insists that one of them give him anal sex, and that’s what he thinks he’s getting but what we see is the two women sharing a moment, laughing at the man who thinks he’s getting what he wants, but instead it’s just a finger up the ass. This isn’t tragic, or filled with drama, but comedy—making the genre indicators of films about sex work transgressive by satirizing what we’ve come to expect after years of a certain kind of representation on this kind of work. This is made even more true when we find out why these women are working this job in the first place. It isn’t because they were forced into it at a young age or anything of the sort. It’s because they’re paying off student loans, saving money to start businesses or looking to make a few bucks on the side for things like clothes and jewellery.  
The Quad are is offering up Bette Gordon’s Variety as a double feature with Working Girls on July 19th, because both these films deal with women in the workforce and how sex colors how the women in these movies navigate the world. Variety sets the tone early with an opening scene between Christine (Sandy McLeod) and Nan (Nan Golden) discussing employment opportunities in a women’s locker room after working out. The camera stays still as they talk and we merely sit and listen to what they have to say. There’s not a lot of jobs out there for women. The promise of an equal workforce was always something met with skepticism and what’s glaringly obvious about their talk is that their place as women effects what sort of jobs are available to them. Nan suggests that Christine work at a clothing store, but Chris goes for something a little more daring: a ticket taker at a porno theater. This was a New York before former Mayor Rudy Guillliani "cleaned" everything up eliminating the strip bars, and with it some of the only jobs afforded to hard- on- their- luck women at the time. This is a New York of neon lights, cigarette smoke and dried cum. It's the New York of Martin Scorsese and Abel Ferrara's noir/horror pictures like Taxi Driver (1976) and The Driller Killer(1979). It's not the black and white city of soft jazz like in Manhattan (1979), it's the city where if you don't fit a certain mold of affluence you hustle to survive, —and Christine does just that at her porno job. She sits bored out of her mind more often than not, dealing with skeevy men and curious wall-street types, but she's drawn towards the pornographic images of women on screen. Christine is chasing after her own person sexual revolution, and in Bette Gordon's scenario 's she penetrates a space that had previously only been the stomping ground of semi-hard men with nothing but a head of steam to blow off. Her mere presence complicates the image and the question of "what do woman do when men aren't around?" that I previously brought up in relation to Chantal Akerman’s cinema also asks. Here, the specific question is "how do men change when women move into spaces that were previously theirs?" and while Variety doesn't have all the answers, it forces us as viewers to investigate for ourselves through images how these men become more cautious around a woman, and in some cases more cunning, lecherous, and hate-filled. Christine's power as a woman in this space is that she's asserting her body’s right to exist among men, and in that regard it's one of the most deeply layered, complex pictures in the wake of women moving into the workforce.  
In the dawn of second-wave feminism and in response to the overwhelmingly masculine cinema of mainstream Hollywood women’s stories still thrived. They persisted and shook with the times, and in many cases opened new avenues where we could more freely talk about issues like economic inequality, racism, sexism, abortion, and balancing a family and job life. These films were radical, forcing cinema to consider our bodies and our livelihoods beyond the happily ever after of the perfect man. It was a new frontier, and while we are still blazing that path and fighting for our right to even appear in mainstream cinema as equally as men do, we still speak, and we will until we’re heard. In the meantime, we’re still making movies. Like Bette Gordon. Like Lizzie Borden. Like Chantal Akerman. 
"The New York Woman" runs at the Quad Cinema in New York from June 29 – July 19, 2018.

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Bette GordonChantal AkermanIllustrationsLizzie Borden
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