Gendered Cinema

There are so many status quo filmmaking supposed “norms”—questionable militaristic language like “point” and “shoot” and “cut”—”CAPTURE” a moment. But the truth is: I came into most of my power as a filmmaker when I realized that all I needed to do was make a safe space for people to have feelings.

This keynote address by Jill Soloway has been popping up repeatedly in my facebook feed, and it presents the intriguing (and apparently popular) idea that what I’ve been calling MacroCinema could also be defined as Masculine Cinema or Patriarchal Cinema.

I agree, basically – it’s the same cultural force that can be traced back at least as far as Descartes, if not all the way to the Greeks and beyond – the western ideology of dividing things, categorizing them, understanding and defining them, with the ultimate goal of control. Cinema perhaps represents the peak or apogee of Western Aesthetic Control, in the sense that it takes something putatively organic and natural (a human dramatic moment) and dominates it utterly through the deployment of millions of dollars in resources, technology and manpower. Once it is thoroughly under control and processed through the industrial machinery (lighting, blocking, editing, color correction, sound mixing), it is locked into place, frozen in time so that hundreds of years in the future it will be theoretically identical, viewable as a perfectly unchanged artifact.

Even subsequent iterations of moving image art – interactive forms, video games, social media – are arguably less thorough in terms of absolute control and domination. No doubt they still powerfully manipulate their audience, but by definition they do it “in relationship” – with some degree of interactivity and choice, real or illusory, for the viewer.

Whether the impulse to control is essentially masculine, and the impulse to feel empathy and relationship is essentially feminine is a long, complex, vast gender studies debate – and it’s broadly accepted, seems like, that biologically male and female people possess qualities on both ends of this spectrum. It seems to me that counterintuitively, the very desire to categorize “male” and “female” qualities comes out of the Cartesian mindset that things need to be categorized and defined to be understood, articulated and resisted.

Maybe what needs to happen is a moving beyond the terminology of “masculine” and “feminine” altogether, given that the former carries the cultural connotation of a penis and the latter a vagina. In her act of rhetorical resistance itself, Soloway is giving these organs the very sort of spiritual power, “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” dichotomy that she’s simultaneously mocking. Yin and Yang are perhaps one (slightly) less gendered way of talking about these balanced human energies – though that gets into dangerous territory of cultural appropriation & orientalism pretty easily if you’re not careful.

Of course, Jill Soloway isn’t thinking about all of this in a vacuum – she has managed to survive and thrive in exactly the hypermasculine, control-oriented industry that she’s describing, which is amazing. If the way that works for her is through the concept of a “spiritual womb” and/or a “conceptual pussy” – more power to her.

I actually think it would be extremely interesting to carry this energy inversion through the entire process, as a thought experiment at least – if the relationship between actors and directors is about feeling rather than control, how does that percolate through to grips and gaffers, lowly PAs and craft services? What if that wild empathy was the organizing principle itself from day one, destabilizing the entire pyramidal hierarchy of a film crew and the rigid grid of a production schedule?

This isn’t a case of me playing devil’s advocate or trolling – I really want to see that experiment. I want Jill Soloway’s spiritual womb in charge of a production company, I would love to see what they do. My guess is that their output would wind up pretty experimental and non-narrative, not especially receptive to the (also hypermasculine) worlds of marketing, PR and advertising – which ultimately aim to control and manipulate a vast audience towards the theater on opening weekend. But maybe that’s possible, or at least more possible than ever before, with the internet and streaming content services.

Beyond that, narrative itself, to the degree that there’s a protagonist who wants something and tries to get it, has, in this context, a masculine orientation – also no doubt due to thousands of years of patriarchy.

I think there are filmmakers working today, with penises (given that the industry is 95% male after all), who are more inclined to a “Yin” filmmaking approach, about relationships and feelings – Terrence Malick, the Duplass brothers, early David Gordon Green, Mike Leigh in the UK, the Dardenne Brothers in Amsterdam.

And equally, women who grab the reins of power in Hollywood may be tapping into their “Yang” domination energy – certainly Kathryn Bigelow, director of the Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, Catherine Hardwicke, who directed the first Twilight movie, and even Ava DuVernay with Selma and whatever superhero movie she’s now contracted to do.

The list is indeed much longer of women, in the US and around the world, who, though underrepresented in the film industry, have consistently chosen to make movies about feeling, relationship, empathy, daily life. I am certainly more interested in this category (if there must be categories), and I am excited by the success of Transparent. I just think it’s a bigger issue than Dominating Men Dominating Cinema. The issue is with the industrial control paradigm of the form itself.

MacroCinema may have been the perfect medium to reflect the Industrial Patriarchy of the USA in the 20th Century. But for the future, who knows – perhaps something far more balanced, and far more interesting.

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