Female Director Spotlight: Dorothy Arzner and Making Films for Women in the 1930s

Hollywood of the 1920s and 1930s was a male-dominated space, with men like Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, Jean Renoir, and countless others receiving credit for their illustrious place in film history. But, one person that film history largely forgets is Dorothy Arzner, who has the largest oeuvre of any woman filmmaker. She was the only female director working during this time and the only female filmmaker whose work moved from the silent era into sound, showing her strength in filmmaking as well as her creativity. But it isn’t just her technical prowess that deserves praise; it is also her desire to portray nuanced and complicated women, rather than the stereotypical women-as-objects seen in that era of cinema. Her films explore women, how they’re represented in classic Hollywood narratives, and how supportive friendships between women flourish, which can be seen in Dance, Girl, Dance. She made films about women for women, and addressed the many facets of being a woman, from societal standing to romantic relationships to what it means to work. Arzner was also a lesbian filmmaker, which can be seen in her critiques of heteronormative relationships and their consequences, particularly in her 1933 film, Christopher Strong.

Despite a prolific career, Arzner is not commonly mentioned with this era of Hollywood cinema and she is rarely studied. I was lucky enough to be introduced to her work by a TA in grad school, who told me only one book has been written on Arzner and how difficult is to find many of her films — only a few of them are available to stream or even purchase. I believe Arzner deserves a larger place in the canon, and more recognition for the types of films she was creating, particularly with her focus on catering to a female spectator. The films I detail below are some of her more easily found work and exemplify Arzner’s key themes around social class, work, friendship, and critiques of heteronormativity.

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Halloween Horrors: Get Seduced by the Ghostly Eroticism of ‘Kuroneko’

It seems somewhat serendipitous that my final horror film recommendation for the month is Kuroneko, the most recent film I viewed on FilmStruck. Because of that streaming service, I was able to watch perhaps one of the most beautiful horror movies ever made and be seduced by its ghostly visuals. It is also a fascinating take on the rape-revenge film, a genre that seems to exclusively be grounded in Western cinema.

Kuroneko, or Black Cat, is about grief, suffering, revenge, and love. The film takes place is war-torn feudal Japan where young men are sent off to battle and rogue samurai roam the land. Two women, a mother and her daughter-in-law, are raped and murdered by said rogue samurai. However, a black cat appears, and brings them back to life as vengeful spirits who vow to drink the blood of every samurai in existence. This gets a bit complicated, however, when their son and husband, Gintoki, becomes a samurai. Continue reading “Halloween Horrors: Get Seduced by the Ghostly Eroticism of ‘Kuroneko’”

Halloween Horrors: A Gory Reimagining of the Slasher Film in ‘High Tension’

The slasher film is a quintessential subgenre for horror, giving the world figures like Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Freddy Krueger: all male figures chasing women with knives. But for this week’s horror recommendation, I’m bringing you a slasher of the likes you’ve never seen. Alexandre Aja’s High Tension takes the slasher film and turns it on his head. It is essential viewing for fans of the genre and of the portrayal of gender in horror film.

High Tension follows student Marie (Cecile de France) and her friend, Alex (Maïwenn) as they travel to Alex’s family home in the French countryside. It is a secluded place, quiet and surrounded by corn, perfect for studying, Alex says. However, there isn’t much studying when a deranged killer arrives at the home, killing Alex’s family and kidnapping her, leaving Marie behind. What ensues is Marie’s quest to save her friend from the psychopath and prove how much she cares for her. Continue reading “Halloween Horrors: A Gory Reimagining of the Slasher Film in ‘High Tension’”

Halloween Horrors: Coming of Age and Little Monsters in ‘Der Nachtmahr’

Coming-of-age stories are no stranger to the horror genre. The emotional turmoil, bodily transformations, and anxieties that come with teenage years are ripe for the horror picking, from Ginger Snaps to Raw. Sometimes, you think you’ve seen all the different variations of these stories. Then you see something new and exciting, something that blows your mind using a strange little puppet monster. My next recommendation for this month of horror is The Nightmare, or Der Nachtmahr.

The 2015 German film follows party girl Tina (Carolyn Genzkow) as she navigates a life of house music, drugs, boys, and anxiety. As the bass pumps ever louder and the lights never stop flashing, Tina loses herself in the music, a momentary reprieve from the pressures of being 17. However, she can’t escape for too long, because her fears take a physical form: a little gremlin creature with which she is mentally linked.

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Halloween Horrors: The Psychosexual Terror of ‘The Untamed’

It’s Halloween month, arguably the best time of the year. As the leaves change to orange and a chill enters the air, it’s the perfect time to curl up with the lights off and watch your favorite horror movies, from Halloween to Trick’r’Treat. But this year, I’m challenging you to sprinkle something new into your Halloween watchlist. This month, I’ll be providing horror film recommendations for films that are by non-American filmmakers that haven’t received much critical attention. My first recommendation comes from Mexican filmmaker, Amat Escalante, with his 2016 sci-fi-horror film, The Untamed, or La región salvaje.

The Untamed follows three characters: Alejandra (Ruth Ramos), her husband, Ángel (Jesús Meza), and her brother, Fabián (Eden Villavicencio). Alejandra and Ángel are deeply unsatisfied with their marriage, one that has been built on necessity and secrets. They are short with each other and their sex life leaves something to be desired. An air of dissatisfaction permeates this film: dissatisfaction with relationships, with heteronormativity, with their ‘assigned’ roles in the household. But these dynamics are interrupted when a mysterious woman named Verónica (Simone Bucio) comes into the picture. She knows about something, something not from this world that can bring ultimate pleasure to anyone. The premise sounds like something out of a campy, 1980s B-horror film. But the attention to cinematography and the sympathy created for its characters make The Untamed something special and something truly odd.

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Female Director Spotlight: Claire Denis Doesn’t Show Us the War, but the Aftermath

In perhaps the most striking scene of Claire Denis’ debut Chocolat, we see Proteé – the “houseboy” of a French civil servant in the colonialized Cameroon of the late 50’s – working on a generator in a small hut. After a while, he notices that someone is observing him. It’s France, the infant daughter of the civil servant. There is a somewhat hard emotion palpable in the air. France asks Proteé if one of the parts of the machine is hot. Without stirring an emotion, the man presses his hand on a tube. France tries to do the same but cries out as she realizes the tube is in fact incredibly hot, and leaves her hand burned. Proteé’s hand is burned to a much more severe degree, but he doesn’t flinch. He just looks at her. There is nothing more to say. He leaves into the night and never comes back.

This scene is a crucial component to understanding Claire Denis’ cinema, which has separated itself from the majority of European auteur cinema and moves on its very own heady and uncompromising path.

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Fall 2018: Female Directors

Unlike this summer, female representation behind the camera is being overshadowed this fall by the Ruben Fleischers, Damien Chazelles, and Bryan Singers. While you can’t expect many women-helmed movies at your local theatre, they’ll be making lots of noise on the festival circuit. Along with a description of the theatrical releases to look out for, this piece compiles a list of the female-directed feature films screening at major film festivals. Listing every film at every fall festival would make for an article as long as Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, so we trust our readers will be on the lookout for women filmmakers at their local festivals, as well as documentary and short films directed by women. All film descriptions are from press materials and all theatrical release dates are for the United States. 

Theatrical releases:

September 21 – NAPPILY EVER AFTER dir. Haifaa Al-Mansour

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Violet has it all: the perfect job, the perfect relationship and the perfect hair. Until an accident at her hair salon makes her realize she’s not living life to the fullest. This romantic comedy, starring Sanaa Lathan, is based on the novel of the same name by Trisha R. Thomas

September 28 – LITTLE WOMEN dir. Clare Niederpruem 

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A modern retelling of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel follows the lives of the same sisters we know so well — Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March — and detailing their passage from childhood to womanhood. Despite harsh times, they cling to optimism, and as they mature, they face blossoming ambitions, relationships, and tragedy, while maintaining their unbreakable bond.

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