Criticism vs. Activism

Recently I’ve been wondering if I’m a critic or an activist, and where is the line, and is it possible to be both, or does activism undermine criticism? This blog obviously has an activist bent: I want people to make an effort to see more movies by women, in order to support women’s artistic careers. My criticism is colored by this desire, although I hope that bias is limited to my choice of review subjects. I’m not grading women on a curve. (Although I do grade a debut on a curve, male or female.) If it’s not obvious, I do continue to see movies by male directors, I just don’t review them on this site.

The truth is, I don’t see myself as either an activist or a critic. Of the two labels, I’m much closer to critic, but as a writer, I’m most comfortable writing fiction. As a movie critic, I tend to analyze film from a literary point of view, because I feel I have a good understanding of how a story is put together. I also enjoy writing about acting and costume design, because these are subjects I’ve paid attention to since I was a little kid. But it has taken me a long time to analyze the more technical aspects of filmmaking, things like camera angles and sound design. I’ve also never studied film formally. So, I often feel like an amateur when I write about it. Does every critic feel this way, or is this just an example of imposter syndrome–a species of self-doubt tends to afflict women more than men?

It’s hard for me to separate my criticism from an activist impulse because I doubt I would have taken the leap to writing about film if not for the Harvey Weinstein scandal. I knew the industry was hard on women, and I knew that most film critics were men, but I didn’t realize the extent of the damage to women’s careers and artistry. And, as cheesy as it sounds, another big inspiration was seeing Rey in the Star Wars films. I’ve told this story before, but I was seated next to a little girl at the screening of The Force Awakens and she was so shocked and delighted to see a girl as the lead that I felt kind of sad. She wasn’t that old–maybe 5?–and already she was conditioned to expect a boy at the center of a movie.

A lot of these thoughts were stirred up by This Changes Everything, the documentary that I reviewed yesterday. It’s taken me a while to gain confidence as a movie critic, and I often doubt myself, but I have to remind myself that I’m here because not enough women are writing about movies. And I’m staying here, because after a two-year media diet, in which I made sure that the majority of what I watched was written or directed by a woman, I have a lot more to say. When you bring the female gaze into your life, it changes you. I feel I can see more clearly the biases in the film criticism, and in the industry in general. I’ll be writing more about that in the coming months, and hopefully publishing my work in some larger venues. But this blog will remain my home base, my sketchbook, my first draft.

Lots of Female Directors at TIFF

AntigoneDirector Sophie Deraspe adapts Antigone 

I was reading a bummer of an article in Hollywood Reporter about there are only two female directors showing films at the Venice Film Festival, when I remembered that I had meant to check the Toronto Film Festival listings, which, happily, are a completely different story. There are many, many films directed by women and what is especially delightful is the way the website includes “female directors” as a genre, so that you can see a complete listing of female-directed films. This made it especially easy to update my 2019 Female Directed/Written films list.

One of these days I’m going to get to the Toronto Film Festival. It’s been on my bucket list for a long time, because it always seems to have the movies I’m most excited about, and this year is no exception: They are showing Julie Delpy’s My Zoe, Kasi Lemmon’s Harriet, and Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. 

Movies I Watched in Florida: Part 2

debbie.0

Writing to you from lovely but chilly Brooklyn. It feels good to be home. We went to the playground and I made two little videos of my daughter. I’m experimenting with my home videos, trying to make them with some thoughtfulness and a sense of narrative or at least framing them in some way. I’ve only been doing it for a few days but I feel like it’s already helping me to understand better how story is conveyed through film. I was going to post the video here because it’s pretty low-key in terms of showing my daughter–you can’t see her face clearly–but apparently that would require giving WordPress access to all my photos on Google. So, I’ll put the video sharing on hold for now, until I figure out how to address all the privacy issues.

Anyway, back to the movies I saw in Florida, which, surprisingly, included Singin’ in the Rain. It was showing on Sunday night, our second night in Florida, as part of Epic Theatre’s “Flashback Cinema.” Epic Theatre seems to be a cineplex chain in the south, and our screening  was introduced, via video, by one of its executives, who shared some interesting facts about the movie. For instance: did you know that Gene Kelly has a 103 degree fever when he shot the title number, “Singin’ in the Rain?” Did you know the entire movie was written around that song? I did not. Nor did I know that Debbie Reynolds was not Gene Kelly’s first, second, third, or fourth choice and that she had to prove herself. To prepare, she took dance classes for eight hours a day for six months. Which is incredible. I feel like Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling did not put that much effort in for La La Land. Their dancing style was sort of “whatever works.” Whereas Debbie Reynolds’s was “I’m gonna make this work/prove myself to Gene Kelly.” Can you imagine the pressure? Only someone as young and hungry as Reynolds was then would have been able to stomach it.

Continue reading “Movies I Watched in Florida: Part 2”

In Defense of Reserved Seating

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I recently read critic A.S. Hamrah’s latest dispatch on n+1. I’ve always liked that he writes about the experience of going to the movies as well as the movies themselves. Last month, he wrote about the trend of reserved seating, which he finds undemocratic:

Reserved seats are antithetical to moviegoing, which traditionally and democratically has been first come, first served. You could move to a different seat if a weirdo (or anybody) was sitting too close. This new nonegalitarian system is fancy and inappropriate. It takes too long and it huddles people together. 

I had a weirdly personal and defensive reaction to this statement, because I am a parent of two young children, and reserved seating has made it a lot easier for me to see movies. I rely on it to get seats (two seats together) to popular movies or special screenings. It would be my pleasure to arrive early for one of these movies and wait in line with a book or a podcast, but I can’t, because I have to give my kids dinner and get them ready for bed before I can go out. Without reserved seating, my husband and I have to plan for an extra 45 minutes of waiting, which is basically an hour of babysitting time, or $15-20. (Also, a lot of weeknight sitters have day jobs or nannying gigs and they can’t get to our place until 6:30 at the earliest.) So, a theater that allows us to reserve two seats together is a major convenience. We go to more movies than we used to because of reserved seating.

Continue reading “In Defense of Reserved Seating”

Lights, Camera, Alice: a new children’s book about Alice Guy

alicekidsbooks

I came across this new children’s book when I was doing a library search for Alice Guy Blaché’s memoirs, which, by the way, are very hard to get a hold of. (More on that in another post, as this blog slowly morphs into a Alice Guy Blaché research site.)

Lights! Camera! Alice! is what my 6-year-old son would call a “true-story book.” It tells Blaché’s biography with a high degree of historical accuracy (with an index of sources) and doesn’t embellish, though it does have to skip over a lot of details as it jumps through times. There are a couple cinematic touches throughout, with title cards to announce different periods in Alice’s life and a newspaper montage to show the outside world events. The illustrations are charming with a color palette that is subtly reminiscent of old movies.  Continue reading “Lights, Camera, Alice: a new children’s book about Alice Guy”

Falling Leaves and O. Henry

falling leaves

The other day I discovered, quite by accident, that Alice Guy Blaché’s short film, “Falling Leaves” is based on the O. Henry story “The Last Leaf.” I was reading Meg Wolitzer’s editor’s introduction to 2017’s Best American Short Stories, and she mentioned that her favorite O. Henry story was about an artist who convinces a girl suffering from pneumonia that she will survive. The girl believes that she will die when the last leaf falls, so the artists paints an incredibly life-like leaf outside her window. It never falls, and the girl survives through sheer belief. But — and here’s the O. Henry twist — the artist dies from standing out in the cold and taking all the time to paint the leaf.

Initially I thought, hmm, did O. Henry see the Blaché film about the girl who ties leaves to a tree in a vain effort to save her sister, who is dying of tuberculosis? But I checked the dates and O. Henry’s story was published in 1907 while Blaché’s film was released in 1912:

alice guy falling leaves

Then I did some googling and sure enough, Wikipedia already has it covered:

The plot of Falling Leaves owes elements to the O. Henry short story “The Last Leaf” (1907). The child hero is a recurring theme in Guy-Blaché films; the first film produced by Solax, A Child’s Sacrifice (1910), which also starred Magda Foy, is another example.

It’s just a little thing, but I thought it was a fascinating glimpse into Blaché’s creative process. By the way, you can watch the original film, “Falling Leaves” for free on Kanopy as part of the program, “Three Films by Alice Guy Blaché.”