Welcome to Auteuse Theory


Welcome to Auteuse Theory. The purpose of this blog is to allow us to think about and write about a range of films made by women, from silent re-discoveries to the latest releases, from activist documentaries to mainstream Hollywood features, taking in examples from across the globe, whether famous or obscure. We have no desire to force ham-fisted links between very different films and very different filmmakers, to insist that they fit some pre-designated template of women’s cinema. Quite the opposite; we want to explore the diversity of forms taken by women’s filmmaking across different nations and eras. So why focus on women as a separate category at all? Why isolate their films from those of their male peers and think about them as some kind of exceptional or special case? Well, there’s still the matter of persistent inequality of opportunity within certain key authorial roles in the film industries. We all know the stats: even now, post-Bigelow Oscar win, women only constitute 10% of directors globally, and 15% of screenwriters. This is an improvement on previous years but it’s still (obviously!) a very minor proportion of the whole. As the British director Lynne Ramsay has commented, it’s ‘a bit like a country not being filmed – and that country not having a voice. It really does matter.’ And although we are very reluctant to make simple equations between the fact of there being a woman being at the helm of a film and that film offering a more complex picture of femininity (there have always been battalions of male directors who are very good at telling female-focussed stories), there is nonetheless plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that this is often true.

Our main subject is film but we will inevitably make forays into television and other media from time to time. We will be focussing predominantly on films directed by women, but we’re also interested in including films which demonstrate female authorship in other ways (writing, producing or performance). And we won’t be thinking about those films solely as women’s films. We don’t want to ghettoise them, so we’ll be connecting them to the time and place of their production, or their place within a genre or a movement, as much as we connect them to each other. There will be no rhyme or reason to the films that we discuss or the order in which they appear, instead we’ll be hoping for serendipitous connections, unexpected correspondences, sharp contrasts, strange juxtapositions; in other words, a blog that aims to be perpetually different and surprising. Most of the writing will be undertaken by the two main authors but interspersed with guest reviews from others who will each bring a fresh perspective.

And, finally, why the title Auteuse Theory? We were scouting around for a name that indicated a response to the old-fashioned auteur theory, and its insistence on ‘virility’ as a marker of directorial quality (all that Hawks and Ford worship). Women hadn’t only been marginalised in the making of films but the select few who had managed to break through were often given short shrift in the founding critical histories of film (with the exception of the highly problematic case of Leni Riefenstahl), until feminist scholars put Arzner, Weber, Guy-Blache, Lupino and Varda back into the picture. And this work of excavation and rediscovery continues – see the Women Film Pioneers and Women and Silent British Cinema websites for ongoing examples. We are aware of the problems of using the French feminised form of a professional name, drawing a gendered distinction between male and female practitioners (just as some publications reject the word actress in favour of actor for both men and women), but in the spirit of subversion, we wanted to occupy and feminise a word - auteur - which still sits at the heart of so much film scholarship and film appreciation. And although the blog is called Auteuse Theory, it might be more appropriate to think in terms of 'theories', the more intellectually generous plural form. These are some theories and thoughts and ideas arising from watching these films made by women. We hope you enjoy reading them…


Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Why 'Mamma Mia!' matters

MELANIE WILLIAMS

Since this week sees the publication of my co-edited (with Louise FitzGerald) volume on the much maligned, but also much loved and highly successful Mamma Mia! The Movie, it seems like a good time for Auteuse Theory to revisit the film with specific reference to female authorship. This was a film, after all, which boasted not only a female director in Phyllida Lloyd but also a female screenwriter (Catherine Johnson) and female producer (Judy Craymer), keeping together the all-female team which had collaborated on the original stage musical. This made the film, according to one of its stars Colin Firth, ‘the most thoroughly brought-to-you-by-women package’, and indeed, its female authorship has frequently been seen as the key to the film's subsequent success with female audiences. Its central narrative placement of an older female protagonist (Meryl Streep's Donna) who is not demonised for her racy past, and its evocation of close female friendship between Donna and her two ex bandmates (played by Julie Walters and Christine Baranski) have certainly been read as symptomatic of a uniquely feminine perspective not often permitted in contemporary Hollywood film. For novelist Naomi Alderman, the film offered a rare instance of a female gaze in operation, citing the costuming of Amanda Seyfried in a one-piece swimsuit rather than a skimpy bikini as evidence: ‘She looks like a young girl really would look on a beach in Greece. It makes you feel relaxed, as a woman watching.’ Phyllida Lloyd’s DVD director’s commentary would seem to concur with this idea of the female director possessing special intimate female knowledge to which a male director might not necessarily be party, which can then be conveyed onto the screen. She says of the moment when Sophie cuts her leg shaving during ‘Slipping Through my Fingers’ that ‘girls would understand the trauma of that on their wedding day’. Although it’s not the same, there does seem to be a kinship with an anecdote Samantha Morton recounted about the filming of Morvern Callar (2002) directed by Lynne Ramsay: ‘I was doing that sex scene and I was on my period, and me and Lynne were both like, well, what are we going to do, because my Tampax string was showing. And in the end she just stopped the camera, leaned over and cut it off. And for all sorts of reasons, I can't imagine a man doing that.’ Both suggest the special interior embodied knowledge of female experience in the woman director that enables them to approach their work in a different way from a male director.
That female authorship might actually be a marketable commodity is suggested in certain aspects of Mamma Mia!'s publicity campaign which made canny use of the parallels between the three female friends onscreen and the three female friends behind its making, as Judy Craymer suggests: ‘The studio was promoting the three of us as this trio. They saw us as the women.’ (It would be interesting to explore how these ideas have figured in the trio's subsequent, separate, work, such as Craymer's Spice Girls musical Viva Forever! premiered last week, or Lloyd's current all-female production of Julius Caesar or her controversial 2011 collaboration with Streep, The Iron Lady).
But there's a complicating factor in assigning authorship of Mamma Mia! to Craymer, Lloyd or Johnson, of course, and that is the fact that Mamma Mia! is a jukebox musical, heavily dependent on the pre-existing songs of ABBA, sung by Frida and Agnetha but composed by Benny and Bjorn. Given the already prominent position of ABBA in popular culture, it is not surprising that the musical's female creative team have often conceptualised themselves less as original creators and more as self-effacing ‘handmaidens’ to Benny and Bjorn’s vision, facilitating something that was already latent in the songs and just needed bringing out: ‘This was the musical Benny and Bjorn didn’t realise they’d written’, says Lloyd in the film's production notes. Both men also enjoy a ‘Hitchcockian cameo’ in the film, an authorial privilege not extended (to my knowledge) to any of the trio of women.
But in the end, authorship is perhaps less important than audience reception when thinking about gender in relation to this film. Mamma Mia! The Movie, like its theatrical antecedent, offered a wonderful platform for audience participation, especially singing and sometimes dancing along with the ABBA hits liberally sprinkled throughout. As Jane Fryer noted, in her jokily quasi-anthropological investigation into the film's success, screenings of this film flouted the usual decorum of ‘going to the cinema to sit quietly and “Shush!” loudly at anyone rattling sweet wrappers too noisily’ and replaced it with the unusual but ‘incredibly moving’ situation of ‘belting out Abba songs with a bunch of strange women and the occasional startled man’. As one 38-year-old female cinemagoer ‘almost buried under two great vats of popcorn’ testified, joining in was ‘the whole point. You become part of it — you’re in the chorus, you’re on the island, you’re at the wedding, you’re finding true love…but most of all, you’re having a great time’. And this could be expanded into participatory events as vast as the series of ‘epic screenings’ at the O2 Arena, marketed asone of the most uplifting experiences you can imagine’. As I.Q. Hunter notes in our book, repeat viewings and audience participation are hallmarks of cult film appreciation and so Mamma Mia! presents an interesting challenge to ‘the masculinity of cult’, enforcing a broadening of its horizons in order to take account of a film that in many ways is absolute anathema to its macho maverick ethos.


1 comment:

  1. The audience participation reminds me of Hindi cinema which, not coincidentally, also involves singing along, being at the wedding, falling in love -

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