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…

Thursday, 25 July 2013


Doing Women’s Film and Television History

The Second International Conference

of the

Women’s Film and Television History Network – UK/Ireland

 10th - 12th April 2014

The University of East Anglia, UK

Conference organisers: Laraine Porter (De Montfort University), Yvonne Tasker (University of East Anglia) and Melanie Williams (University of East Anglia)

Building on the success of the first ‘Doing Women’s Film History’ conference held in 2011, this three-day international conference will bring together researchers in women’s film and television history, archivists, curators and creative practitioners to explore and celebrate all aspects of women’s participation within the visual media industries across the globe and in all periods. The conference will provide a forum for the latest research into women’s work in film and television production (both on and off screen), in film distribution and exhibition, their roles in television ranging from presenters and personalities to commissioners and controllers, as well as women’s activities as film and television critics, consumers and fans.

We welcome papers on any topic related to women’s film, television and media history but we are also interested in hosting panels and strands on the following areas:

·         women and documentary: whose voices, which audiences, to whose benefit?

·         screenwriters and scriptwriting: the woman writer

·         women’s contributions to non-Anglophone film and television industries

·         feminist filmmakers and filmmaking collectives

·         female film and television fan cultures

·         teaching women’s film and television history

Proposals of 300 words for papers should be sent to doingwomensfilmandtvhistory@uea.ac.uk 
no later than 31st October 2013



Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Continuity Grrl


Angela Allen doing continuity on The Misfits (1961). Picture courtesy of the excellent website http://www.scriptsupervisors.co.uk/  
Continuity Supervisor is one of those vital but somewhat mysterious jobs in film production, akin to the likes of key grip, foley artist or best boy, although thanks to the bloopers section on IMDb and various TV programmes gleefully pointing out continuity errors, there is at least some popular understanding of what overseeing continuity might entail, i.e. avoiding those kind of embarrassing inconsistencies that come back to haunt a film. But what is less well known is the sheer scale and scope of the job and how it requires near-omniscient levels of vigilance. As the experienced supervisor Angela Allen explained in an interview, her purpose on set was to function as a kind of  human ‘memory bank’, recording all the vital data about who was doing what as they said a particular line, how the set was dressed, what people were wearing, and so on. Another continuity supervisor, Phyllis Crocker, described her role in similar terms back in 1947:

The continuity girl is on the set for the whole time during rehearsal and shooting, making careful note of everything that is essential for the record, and being at hand to prompt both director and artists on dialogue, movement, position and effects. She has her own desk and typewriter on the set and while one scene is being set up, she is putting the previous one on permanent record. She is, in fact, the clerical repository of all the information that the director carries more or less vaguely in his head. (Collier 1947: 58)
Note Crocker's exclusive use of female pronouns here as well as the telling nomenclature of 'continuity girl': continuity supervision was an area of film labour overwhelmingly occupied by women, and to some extent continues to be - at least in the UK.
And despite its crucial role in successful film production, continuity supervisor isn’t a job with huge prestige attached, unlike other equally key roles which arguably enjoy a more elevated position. Could that have something to do with the particularly gendered status of overseeing continuity? Film historian Sue Harper certainly believes there’s a connection between the two, suggesting that its position in the industry as a ‘female prerogative’ is intimately connected to its ‘attendant lack of status’ (2000: 4).
Certainly, struggles for status and recognition resonate through many accounts of the job, whether in Kay Mander’s insistence that the continuity girl is ‘more than a “floor secretary’’ – she is indeed a technician’ and ‘one of only three people on the set who are expected to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the script’ along with the director and his assistant (1940: 89), or in Pamela Mann-Francis’ lengthy struggles to achieve Association of Cine Technicians (ACT) union membership, allowing her to put ‘film technician’ rather than ‘secretary’ as her profession on her passport. But as Sian Busby suggests, the continuity girl is also ‘often her own worst enemy’ when it comes to recognition of her hidden labour, ‘unobtrusively going about the task of making significant changes, corrections and improvements so that no incongruities remain; quietly curtailing production costs; acting unassumingly as aide memoire cast and crew; reassuringly sharing the burden of coverage with the director (1993: 18).
Continuity work often appears to supersede its official demarcation, as the continuity girl Martha Robinson once suggested, taking in ‘not only their own official job but, unofficially, that of First or Second assistant director, production manager, assistant cutting editor, dialogue writer and even co-director’. Robinson saw this in highly gendered terms: ‘Women are like that. If they see work neglected, they unobtrusively do it themselves and think nothing of it’ (1937: viii).
It may be a rhetorical step too far to claim 'auteuse' status for all continuity supervisors but it seems that the extent of their creative input into the filmmaking process may well have been vastly underestimated and worthy of a great deal more investigation.
Busby, S. (1993), ‘Continuity: a job for the girls’, In Sync (Journal of Women in Film and Television), 3:1, pp. 18 and 22.
Collier, J. W. (1947), A Film in the Making, Featuring It Always Rains on Sunday, London: World Film Publications.
Harper, S. (2000), Women in British Cinema: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know, London: Continuum.
Mander, K. (1940), ‘Cutter’s fifth column’, Cine-Technician, October–December, p. 89.

Robinson, M. (1937), Continuity Girl, London: Robert Hale.
[For a more detailed discussion of continuity supervision, see my article, 'The Continuity Girl: Ice in the Middle of Fire', Journal of British Cinema and Television, 10:3, July 2013, pp. 603-617. http://www.euppublishing.com/toc/jbctv/10/3 ]

Thursday, 11 July 2013

On Lisa Cholodenko and 'The Kids are All Right'


Watching Lisa Cholodenko’s first feature film, High Art, it is easy to see why it became a queer cult film. Clearly fitting within the canon of New Queer Cinema, the film centres on drug addict photographer Lucy and the development of her relationship with neighbour Syd. The characters are people, not just lesbians, defined by their sexuality. The film which explores human vices and flaws, was critically acclaimed both by queer and mainstream critics alike, which contrasts with Cholodenko’s latest film The Kids Are All Right. Whilst more mainstream, the film can also be defined as New Queer Cinema. Centring on a two-mum family (with Nic and Jules at the head), the film explores the characters’ personal flaws and their struggle to keep their family together as sperm-donor father Paul becomes part of the family. Whilst mainstream critics unanimously praised the film for its ‘refreshing’ representation of a lesbian relationship, queer critics went so far as calling it a “dyke-faced minstrel show”[1]. So why are the two films, by the same director, both centring on lesbian protagonists, and both clearly part of New Queer Cinema, received so differently by their queer critics?
Cholodenko has explained in interviews that in both films she was trying to portray depoliticised characters (the central principle of New Queer Cinema). However, the critics argued that the depoliticisation in The Kids Are All Right has significantly different connotations and influences than that in High Art. Zoe Fine and Mary Whitlock identified the concept of homonormalisation in their article on The Kids Are All Right, arguing that it functioned to normalize the ‘non-normal’. In the case of The Kids Are All Right, this can be viewed as the influence both of the Hollywood target audience, but also an effect of the system in which the film was produced. Many queer critics, such as Lucy Duggan, found it shocking that a lesbian director would portray lesbian characters in such a stereotypical manner. She felt that as a lesbian, it was Cholodenko’s responsibility to create characters who did not feel stereotypical or clichéd, which in her opinion, those of The Kids Are All Right were.
One of the ways in which the characters of Nic and Jules are normalized is through the gender binary created within their relationship. Nic is cast as the typical ‘male’ of the relationship. Her appearance is not traditionally feminine, she has short-cropped hair, and we never see her in anything other than trousers. She is the primary breadwinner for the family, working as a doctor, supporting Jules’ various failed business attempts. Jules is more feminine, a free spirit with long hair, and a more feminine dress sense. While Cholodenko argued that she created the characters out of her own experiences, and based them upon her relationship with her partner, many felt they negatively enforced existing stereotypes of lesbians. It is something that contrasts strongly with the characters from High Art, where relationships are co-dependent and there is no sense of the socially imagined gender binary within the same-sex relationships.
To further enforce the gender binary within the relationship, it is Jules (the ‘feminine’ lesbian) who has an affair with their sperm donor. The affair was flagged by numerous queer critics as unnatural and strange, yet was overlooked by the majority of mainstream critics. It is easy to understand why such heterosexual desires went unnoticed by many, as Richard Dyer argues, “[h]eterosexuality as a social reality seems to be invisible to those who benefit from it”[2].
Considering the affair in The Kids Are All Right, some key differences between the two Cholodenko films are clear. In The Kids Are All Right we see numerous heterosexual and just one homosexual sex scene, despite the film’s focus on a lesbian couple. The contrast between how the two types of sex scene are portrayed is striking. The homosexual sex scene between Nic and Jules is awkward, fully clothed, comedic, and non-passionate. The heterosexual sex scenes are fast-paced, passionate, and intimate (created using nudity). The film seems comfortable to present heterosexual sex, but uncomfortable with presenting homosexual sex as fulfilling. This is interesting, given that the director is herself a lesbian. Talking in the director’s commentary of the film, Cholodenko admits she was uncomfortable with the lesbian sex scene, and felt a comedic aspect was necessary to make the scene acceptable. Interestingly, she did not feel this way about the heterosexual sex scenes between both Paul and his African-American waitress Tanya, and Paul and Jules. Even through Paul and Jules’ sex is an affair, it is represented as more satisfying and fulfilling that Jules’ sex with her wife.
Cholodenko also, seems not to have felt this way about the sex scenes in High Art. In High Art too we see both hetero- and homo- sexual sex scenes, but the hetero/homo preference seen in The Kids Are All Right is reversed. The single sex scene we see between Syd and her boyfriend, is awkward, slow, shot from a distance, doesn’t reach climax, and Syd remains dressed. The lesbian sex scenes we see between Lucy and Greta, and Lucy and Syd, are, as with the heterosexual sex scenes in The Kids Are All Right, shot in a favourable manner.
It is possible to assume then, that as the films are directed by the same person, that it is the production context rather than the director that has influenced this portrayal. It would seem from this that, while Hollywood is now willing to portray homosexual relationships, they are not quite ready to do so in a manner that frames them equally next to heterosexual relationships.  The depoliticization of the characters in The Kids Are All Right appears to be done in a way that does not challenge the heteronormative Hollywood audience or make them uncomfortable. In High Art Cholodenko successfully creates people: not lesbians or stereotypes. The film is not about their sexuality (a refreshing change for LGBTQ cinema) but rather about their human drama. While Cholodenko may have wished to achieve this same result with The Kids Are all Right it would seem the film’s production context prevented her from doing so.

[1] Duggan, Lucy (2010, July 30). ‘ONLY the Kids Are All Right’, Bully Bloggers. Accessed via: http://bullybloggers.wordpress.com/2010/07/30/only-the-kids-are-all-right/ on 17/04/13.
[2] Dyer, Richard, The Matter of Images (Oxon: 2002). P.118.

Monday, 1 July 2013

"Spexism" and the Decline of Women-Penned Specs in Hollywood


Recently my colleagues at The Black List, with the help of Susana Orozoco, released a visual analysis of spec script sales over the past two decades. Speculative screenplays, known in the entertainment industry as "specs," are scripts penned by a writer with no initial compensation and "the intent of selling the final product on the open market." As several sources have already noted, "women writers' scripts currently make up a smaller percentage of spec sales than at any time in the last two decades." Certainly this is a disheartening figure, one that reaffirms the egregious state of the industry for women and the immense progress that must be made for us to stand on equal footing with men. 

Perhaps even more dismaying is the fact that more than ten years ago women screenwriters were selling nearly twice as many specs as they are now. 

Some have theorized this could be due to:

• The collapse of home video sales

• Studios' increased stake in tentpole franchises

• The initial decline of the spec market from its heyday of the mid-1990s

• Women's perceived "attraction" to different genres (comedy, romantic comedy, drama) than men, who are more believed to have the dominant interest in commercial, male-oriented projects

• The assumption that fewer women are interested in pursuing screenwriting during their education or as a career (28.9% of applicants for the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting this year were women)

A recent study from the Sundance Institute and Women in Film, however, sheds more light on the subject with hard data:

A sample of 51 independent filmmakers and executives/high-level talent spontaneously mentioned five major areas that hamper women’s career development:

• Gendered Financial Barriers (43.1%) 

(a) Independent narrative film relies on a funding structure that is primarily operated by males. 

(b) Female-helmed projects are perceived to lack commercial viability. 

(c) Women are viewed as less confident when they ask for film financing.

• Male-dominated networks (39.2%) 

• Stereotyping on set (15.7%) 

• Work and family balance (19.6%) 

• Exclusionary hiring decisions (13.7%)

Moreover, the most frequently suggested ways to change the status quo are:

• Mentoring and encouragement for early career women (36.7%) 

• Improving access to finance (26.5%) 

• Raising awareness of the problem (20.4%)

As the study notes, "this last strategy may be particularly salient, given that some respondents indicated their belief that gender inequality is improving over time or is not any worse than in other industries."

But this assumption of improvement may not be accurate. If the spec sales trend continues, the numbers are actually going down. As a result there's a real sense of urgency that comes with this analysis; a need to work together to find timely solutions.

What are YOUR ideas? Do you agree with the study's suggestions of how to include more women in the industry or are there other approaches that haven't yet been considered? Sound off below.