Thursday, January 28, 2016

Two Cheers for Equality

Just when I was about to sink my teeth into the BBC's "100 Greatest British novels," I came across another, far more dubious list - "A Year With Women: 103 Essential Films By Female Filmmakers" published last August. In principle, I am all for women directing films. If they can manage to make films that are at least as good as the vast majority of films directed by men, that would certainly not be saying very much at all for "female filmmakers." Judging by the 103 films on this list compiled by the eponymous "cinemafanatic," a self-styled "cinephile to the max," women are more than capable of making films at least as bad as men.

While I will admit to seeing roughly half of the 103 films on the list, the admission doesn't give me much satisfaction. Wading through this field of weeds, I found a few actual flowers amongst them, like The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola), Vagabond (Agnes Varda), Away from Her (Sarah Polley), Frida (Julie Taymor), and The Ascent (Larisa Shepitko). As for the rest, does it matter that films as bad as Ishtar, The Night Porter, The Piano, You've Got Mail, and Wayne's World were directed by a man, a woman, or a moviola?

Last December 7, BBC Culture contributor Jane Ciabattari presented the results of a poll of 82 book critics that listed the 100 greatest British novels ever written. Here is the Top 25:

1. Middlemarch (George Eliot)
2. To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf)
3. Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf)
4. Great Expectations (Charles Dickens)
5. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte)
6. Bleak House (Charles Dickens)
7. Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte)
8. David Copperfield (Charles Dickens)
9. Frankenstein (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley)
10. Vanity Fair (William Makepeace Thackeray)
11. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
12. Nineteen Eighty-Four (George Orwell)
13. The Good Soldier (Ford Madox Ford)
14. Clarissa (Charlotte Bronte))
15. Atonement (Ian McEwan)
16. The Waves (Virginia Woolf)
17. Howards End (E. M. Forster)
18. The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro)
19. Emma (Jane Austen)
20. Persuasion (Jane Austen)
21. Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad)
22. The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (Henry Fielding)
23. Jude the Obscure (Thomas Hardy)
24. The Golden Notebooks (Doris Lessing)
25. White Teeth (Zadie Smith)


The first noticeable problem with the BBC list is the insistence on ranking, which is an utterly philistine practice. The second problem is that three people were responsible for nine out of the twenty-five novels. Last summer I commented on another literature poll, the 100 Best Novels Written in English, sponsored by theguardian.com, that was conducted by one person, Robert McCrum, instead of a consortium. I expressed enough distaste for McCrum's list, and the general stupidity of such lists, but compared to the BBC's list, McCrum's now looks far more impressive and authoritative. McCrum refused to rank his 100 choices, presenting them - beginning with Pilgrim's Progress - in chronological order, and he limited each author to a single book, which now seems remarkably fair. If Jane Ciabattari had employed the rule, six of the titles on the list - Mrs. Dalloway, Bleak House, David Copperfield, The Waves, Emma, and Persuasion - would have to be replaced by others. The results would have been more challenging and less objectionable.

One more obvious problem is the definition of "British," which is not as narrow as the poll's guidelines pretend. If Heart of Darkness, The Good Soldier, and The Remains of the Day, novels written by men born - respectively - in Poland, Germany, and Japan, are British, what is Ulysses, especially since Ireland was British until 1946?

I won't bother you with the first 25 of the 103 Essential Films By Female Filmmakers, since you and me and everyone we know have never seen many of them. I've only seen half of them and, according to some websites, I am what is known as a "film scholar." Prominent among the 103 are the names of the better-known women directors like Elaine May, Agnes Varda, and Sofia Coppola. Just about every one of Coppola's films is on the list, which is a good indication of the sad dearth of women directors.

On the occasion of Kathryn Bigelow's win as Best Director at the Academy Awards a few years ago, I wrote a post for this blog devoted to the woman whom I still regard as the finest woman director to date - Lina Wertmuller. Even if they hated Wertmuller, it would be impossible for film critics to disregard the accomplishments of Wertmuller. After all, they included Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, which is, however skillfully made, a loathsome film. While Wertmuller's politics are far to the Left of Riefenstahl's, I think that the reason she is now ignored has alot more to do with her treatment of women, which orthodox feminists long ago dismissed as reinforcing stereotypes.

In the "comments" section of the 103 Essential Films, someone pinted out Wertmuller's conspicuous absence from the list: "This is a great list, but really, no Lina Wertmueller? I realize it is hard for Americans to get a foreign vibe, but this woman is a genius and worth taking a look."

The comment moved "cinemafanatic" to respond - lamely: "I think the availability (aka lack thereof) of her work in the US on DVD/Blu has really lessened her impact on younger generations. It's a shame her films are [not] more accessible." Baloney. What about Chantal Akerman, Maya Deren, and Celine Sciamma, whose films are at least as hard to find as Wertmuller's?

I think Wertmuller is neglected because her films concentrate on often unsympathetic male characters and the women who are drawn to them. And because of Wertmuller's refusal to approve of their actions. The hero of Seven Beauties is a former pimp who survives a German concentration camp by summoning the strength to copulate (there is no better word for it) with the obese female camp commandant. The hero of Swept Away is a stupid Neapolitan deck hand whose superior strength and skill allows him to dominate a particularly useless rich woman with whom he is stranded alone on an island. The hero of Love and Anarchy is a foolish, spotty-faced provincial whose sole chance at being an anarchist hero is through an absurd and hare-brained plot to assassinate Mussolini. Because Wertmuller has a jaundiced view of human beings, men and women, her complex, powerful films are difficult for critics to pigeonhole. Her star rose and set in a painfully short arc in the mid-70s. No sooner had we been surprised by the appearance of The Seduction of Mimi in 1976 than we were disappointed by the big-budget, all-star Blood Feud in 1980. Until the invention of video, films were permitted very brief shelf-lives. If no one recalls Lina Wertmuller's films, it's the fault of film critics, not audiences.  

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