Tuesday, March 01, 2011

XY Certificate

In The Guardian a few days ago, Hadley Freeman asked why, following Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar triumph last year, no women were nominated in the directing category this time round. The relevance of the question depends on a number of assumptions, not least the auteur theory that holds a film’s director to be the most significant creative force; and also the extent to which the gender of said director informs the finished product. After all, directors such as George Cukor and Douglas Sirk were hugely successful making what were known as “women’s pictures”, while possibly the most famous female director of all time was Leni Riefenstahl, and I’m not sure that I can ascertain the feminist subtext in Triumph of the Will. Freeman does acknowledge that Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker was hardly soft and fluffy in its subject matter, “raising the question whether a woman might be able to win a film award, but she has to make a very masculine film to do so.”

Which in turn raises another question, namely whether subject matter – The Hurt Locker is nominally about war, but I’d argue that it’s really about men – determines the nature of a film any more than the content of the director’s underwear does. Does a film about male soldiers have to be masculine any more than a film about female dancers has to be feminine? Four of the five main roles in Black Swan go to women, but since three of them are in various states of derangement, I’m not sure that Darren Aronofsky’s gift to the sisterhood deserves a thank-you note. Because Black Swan (which I only got round to watching at the weekend, so please excuse any observations that have already been made 700 times elsewhere) isn’t really about women or dancing or madness; it’s ultimately about other films, with a few books thrown in. I counted The Red Shoes, All About Eve, Showgirls, Vertigo, lots of Polanskian paranoia (specifically Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and The Tenant), Cronenberg’s horrified fascination with the simultaneous potential and frailty of human flesh (Videodrome, The Fly), a glorious old potboiler called A Double Life, in which an actor pretty much invents Method acting while playing Othello, plus Jekyll and Hyde, American Psycho and Roald Dahl’s short story The Swan. And would it be stretching things too much to see in  Vincent Cassel’s encouragement to Natalie Portman to loosen up an echo of the professor’s suggestions to Daphne Zuniga in The Sure Thing (“Have conversations with people whose clothes are not colour-coordinated.”)? OK, maybe it would. Aronofsky even has the chutzpah to wink at his previous movie, The Wrestler (performance, physical injury, ambition, death, the morning after, tights). The Hurt Locker may not have been about what you thought it was meant to be about, but it wasn’t about Kathryn Bigelow’s DVD collection, surely a more prevalent trait of modern male directors even than blowing stuff up.

Of course, if there really is an empirical difference between male- and female-helmed movies, the Academy should consider separate categories for male and female directors. Which sounds like the cheesiest kind of affirmative action, until you remember that they’ve been doing something similar for actors since the beginning.


notRuairi said...

Good post. Excellent point in the last paragraph. While I hasten to speak about Black Swan because I'm the last person who hasn't seen it (thanks), I don't agree that The Hurt Locker doesn't take from any previous war/suffering/tension/madness archetypes of older movies either. Very little (if anything) is original in mainstream cinema anyway.

Annie said...

Isn't having a category for best director a validation of the auteur theory by the industry though?

Tim F said...

Fair point, notRuairi - war is such a ubiquitous subject for film-makers that anything can feel like a reference. I would still argue that Aronofsky’s references are more explicit and specific.

Not entirely, Annie: I mean, there's an Oscar for best sound editing as well. But presenting the director prize towards the end, making it one of the Big Four - well after, for example, the writing Oscars – does reinforce the idea. Although Best Picture goes to the producers, whose job is to get the money in, which does put it all into perspective.

Mapeel said...

"The Hurt Locker is nominally about war, but I’d argue that it’s really about men"

Same is true of The Social Network. Nominally about a watershed moment in the history of media, really about male friendship.

Tim F said...

...or absence thereof?

expat@large said...

Black Swam having elements of other fillums? It's called "homarrrrggge!"

Quotes the bible: "Is there a thing of which it may be said, “Behold, this is new?” It has been long ago, in the ages which were before us." And that was 3000 years ago, when Bob Hope was just a lad.

And surely (platitude alert!) all good fillums (and I said good) are "about" people (men, women, botched transexuals). Why watch them otherwise?

You know the rule about women in movies, right?


E. Studnicka said...

Some of the greatest chick flicks would have never come into being were it not for man's uncanny ability to annoy the crap out of women.