Whatever Happened to These Female-Made Films From the ’70s and ’80s?
Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau in Desert Hearts
Desert Hearts Productions/The Samuel Goldwyn Company
In the January/February 1984 issue of American Film, acclaimed film writer Carrie Rickey penned a feature titled “Where the Girls Are: What to do after you’ve had your consciousness raised? A new generation of filmmakers are taking up where their older sisters left off.”
Rickey’s prose is hyping and hopeful as she talks about how the female filmmakers of the 1980s are less concerned with overt feminism and more concerned with the variety of mindsets 1970s feminism afforded them. It’s an inspiring read of a few thousand words, and Rickey so swiftly makes the case for how Hollywood just has to let this new wave in — Susan Seidelman, Bette Gordon, Lizzie Borden, Gillian Armstrong, Beth B, among others. They’re so creative, so inventive, so radical, that the moving picture business would be idiots to shut them out.
Only, that’s exactly what Hollywood did.
Just one of the films Rickey mentions in the article could be considered “in the mainstream cultural consciousness” in 2017: Amy Heckerling's Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The others? Well, it’s almost as if they’ve disappeared. Most don’t have a Wikipedia page (nor do their directors); they exist only on rare VHS copies held in university archives somewhere. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be Rickey — who’s gone on to have an illustrious career in film criticism — right now, looking at the new statistics that say no matter how much we write and talk about Hollywood’s woman problem, it’s actually getting worse. Rickey’s prose is so positive in this article that, when I’m reading it, I almost feel like a harbinger from the future about to piss on her feminist rainbow. But there’s hope.
With a grant from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the Billy Wilder Theater at UCLA is about to showcase a huge handful of these lost films. The series, entitled "What a Difference: Women and Film in the 1970s and 1980s," was originally proposed by Shannon Kelley, former head of public programs, and programmed by Paul Malcolm, with assistance from programming assistant KJ Relth. Included in the lineup are Sally Potter’s The Gold Diggers, Joan Micklin Silver’s Hester Street, Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends, Jan Oxenberg’s A Comedy in Six Unnatural Acts, Jane Campion’s A Girl’s Own Story, Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens, and Donna Deitch’s classic lesbian love story Desert Hearts, among others.
Steven Keats and Carol Kane in Hester Street
Even serious deep-dive film lovers can look at the full list and be amazed at how much they don’t know about women-directed film of the ’70s and ’80s. The UCLA Archive has paired the movies (a few in triplicate), so that ideas presented in one film may be countered or bolstered by the one that precedes it.
Look at the trio of Healthcaring: From Our End of the Speculum (Denise Bostrom and Jane Warrenbrand), A Question of Silence (Marlene Gorris) and Riddles of the Sphinx (Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen). Healthcaring is a short composed of interviews with women who recount horrific (and yet quite normalized) experiences in the hands of male gynecologists, where they were made to feel sick and evil. This film is measured and analytical. But A Question comes in and blows that anger up: Three seemingly normal women brutally murder a man while other women just watch it happen, and a male criminal psychologist has to confront his views about the docility of females and what they’re capable of after centuries spent under great duress. From there, Riddles comes in and disintegrates the idea of narrative altogether, combining psychedelic imagery and a Tangerine Dream–like soundtrack with a revisionist telling of Oedipus juxtaposed with a more traditional narrative of a single mom trying to make it all work. This is a program designed to make you feel things.
But one of my favorite pairings from the series is about feminism’s fickle relationship with sex. When Bette Gordon directed the subtly psychosexual Variety in 1983, she was rebelling against the second-wave feminists who seemed to be stifling women’s sexuality. Gordon created a female protagonist, Christine (Sandy McLeod), who takes tickets at a Times Square porno theater and becomes infatuated with a mysterious older man. The film’s been called a feminist Vertigo, because Christine begins following him, infiltrating male spaces such as a late-night fish market and a baseball stadium. But unlike Jimmy Stewart’s character, who tries to remake his woman into his fantasy, the woman here is remaking herself. She becomes more sexual, more powerful, even driving away her liberal, pseudo-awakened boyfriend with her desires. Notes of Godard are all over this movie. It’s one of the first that countered the anti-porn movement with a more nuanced approach to sex and sexuality.
But to fully break your brain, the Wilder has paired this taboo-taunting classic with the documentary that was the first to legally show oral sex onscreen. Directed by Bonnie Sherr Klein (many of you will know her daughter, Naomi Klein, who wrote The Shock Doctrine), Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography is visceral and strange, following a 23-year-old exotic dancer named Linda Lee Tracey as she speaks with feminist scholars and pornography professionals. A contemporary feminist is likely to have mixed feelings about this film, because as the story goes on, it feels more and more like Klein is trying to save Tracey’s soul.
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Tracey does come to see the negative repercussions of the sex trade when she realizes she occupies a very privileged space in the realm, but she’s still adamant about being open and sexual. The scenes depicted, where violent rape porn is the norm, make a strong case for rethinking our pornographic habits; in 1981, Klein was already calling it that we’d become desensitized, and we’d demand more violent and more objectifying imagery in everything. It’s astonishing to think about how ingrained pornography has become in our daily lives after the internet, and no matter which side of the sex-positivity debate you’re on, this film is a reminder of the struggles the second-wave feminists had to fight for sex positivity to even exist.
But before you set off to the Billy Wilder Theater to take in some double or triple features, put yourself in the shoes of the indomitable Carrie Rickey, circa 1984. Imagine you’re devouring these visual pleasures for the first time like you’re full of hope for the future, and you think this is the moment that women will really make their mark. And then maybe go home and start writing these films’ Wikipedia pages, so we can start retroactively making that all come true.
What a Difference: Women and Film in the 1970s and 1980s, Billy Wilder Theater, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood; Feb. 4-27. cinema.ucla.edu/events/2017/what-a-difference-women-and-film-1970s-1980s.
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