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She’s Got the Look: The Female Gaze at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

Written by Willow Maclay on July 27, 2018 

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In an interview with The Criterion Collection in preparation for the release of her masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels, released in 1975, director Chantal Akerman was asked about why she hired women for nearly every job available on set. She elaborated on the history of the film business and eloquently spoke about the lack of opportunities women get with technical jobs in the film industry. She pointed out that it wasn’t rare to see a woman work in costuming or hair and make-up or even editing, but it was rare to see a woman in the director’s chair or work as a director of photography. She wanted to prove a point that women could work any job a man could on a film set, and she did. It was also in 1975 when Laura Mulvey wrote her landmark essay Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema on the theory of the male gaze and how women were valued in cinematic terms in their ability to be looked at through a voyeur’s lens. These two events collided into the single greatest statement for a revolution in how women would be viewed in cinema going forward.

Before these two events happened it was rare to see a woman working as the director of photography on any motion picture, and it was exceptionally uncommon for this to happen in Hollywood. The biggest picture companies in the world had little time for women at all in the early 70s as there was a rebirth happening at the time that saw movies shift away from the older Hollywood model and into something newer and altogether more masculine than what had come before. Now, the movies would be about bikers charting their own path on the highways of the United States, and the criminal organizations that catered towards violence and brotherhood above all else. Functionally, these movies were the new westerns and noir pictures, but there wasn’t a femme fatale in sight. It was more likely for a woman to be a dead body than it was for her to be a character. There wasn’t a tectonic shift in Hollywood or world cinema after Chantal Akerman pushed for Babette Mangolte to shoot her feminist masterpiece Jeanne Dielman or after the publication of Laura Mulvey’s essay. What did happen was small chinks in the armor of a too-slow process that only ever saw the first woman to be nominated for Best Cinematography at the Oscars last year with the brilliant work of Rachel Morrison on Mudbound.

Now underway through August 9, the Film Society of Lincoln Center offers an antidote in their far-ranging series–The Female Gazewhich showcases 36 films shot by 23 different women. The series preaches diversity with films that reach toward many corners of the world, from the smaller micro-budget experimental fare of Mangolte (The Camera: Je or La Camera: I) to American blockbuster work from Maryse Alberti (Creed). If anything, the series destroys the theory of a singular female gaze due to the broad range of films on display and the ways in which they are shot. For example, The Neon Demon (shot by Natasha Braier) could not be more stylistically opposed to the work of Agnès Godard in Beau Travail. Yes, both of these films are obsessed with bodies and how they move, function, and are looked upon, but one is a flurry of Giallo-inspired decadence soaked in neon and crimson while the other is caked in sand and built upon images that linger like a red palm print; the echo when skin touches skin for long periods of embrace. It’s hard to say whether a female gaze exists or if we’ve moved past such essentialist terms of gender, and while I think it would be foolish to think gender doesn’t play a role in how we see the world, I do think it is only stupidity to say it means a woman cannot shoot any type of film, and this series proves that point in spades.

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Some of the more interesting films playing in the series involve women DPs and men behind the director’s chair. The collaborations of French New Wave master filmmaker Jacques Rivette and cinematographer Caroline Champetier shine in particular. Rivette has long been a legend of the medium wide shot to evoke the space his characters take up and in doing so often gives weight to the fashion choices his characters make to better emphasize their character traits. In Gang of Four Champetier shoots these characters with affection for their current circumstances and the bond these women share as they interrogate their feelings when a mystery man (Benoît Régent) burrows his way into their lives. Rivette has tendencies similar to David Lynch in that he bends realism with supernatural elements through gesture. In the case of Gang of Four, and many of Rivette’s films, it is through a conspiracy theory, and Champetier emphasizes this with sensual, moody lensing and propensity for a color palette drenched in reds, amber, gold, and musty browns, giving off a foreshadowing feeling that a violent act will occur. Rivette, meanwhile, softens all of this through his patient filmmaking that eases viewers into a world that is not dissimilar to Alice slipping further and further down the rabbit hole until the world she once remembered doesn’t exist any longer.

Ryan Coogler has two films playing in the series and he makes a fascinating case study. He’s never worked with a male DP for any of his feature films to date. “You’re absolutely missing something [in a room that’s all men],” Coogler told Fast Company. “Too often, you find yourself in a room like that.” He added, “Everybody’s a prisoner of their own perspective. I can only see the world through my own eyes. The last few times I made a movie, I had a cinematographer who was a woman. And my editors, one of them is a woman, and the way those two view things and give notes are radically different, and when you have that balance, it’s really an asset.” Fruitvale Station and the recent, all-too-rare great superhero feature Black Panther were both shot by Rachel Morrison, who is quickly becoming one of the most sought-after DPs in all of Hollywood. Coogler’s best feature Creed was shot by Maryse Alberti, whose bombastic understanding of the specific subcultures of the subjects in her film made her a natural fit for the world of boxing (and her other feature in the series, Todd Haynes’ Odyssian queer glam rock picture Velvet Goldmine). Alberti and Coogler were always going to have their hands full dealing with the legacy of both the Rocky franchise and the contextual relevancy of cinematic portraits of boxing like Raging Bull. Boxing is inherently cinematic, but how do you do something different when pictures like Creed have been made for nearly 100 years now? The answer: get into the rhythm and science of the three-minute round.

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The second fight of the film is structured to look and feel like a single take with a lot of third-person, over-the-shoulder camera placement with slight zooms to emphasize the impact of jabs, hooks, and strikes. A young Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), billed as “Hollywood Donnie,” is taking on an up-and-coming local fighter by the name of Leo “The Lion” Sporino (Gabriel Rosado). Leo is more experienced in the ring, but Donnie’s got heart and a puncher’s chance and lives by the notion that any man with two fists can win on his best day. What follows is a dissection of the fighter’s mind as they adapt to patterns, movement, and tendencies in the ring. The camera glides with them punch to punch, dancing around the ring like a third fighter, capturing the soul of these two men based on their strategy and viability as fighters. In boxing, time is of the essence to understand your opponent, you have to wait and idle back and see what they do first in order to figure out a way to counter and fight back. Adonis takes punches because it’s necessary and Alberti and Coogler emphasize his growing understanding of Leo in the ring by capitalizing on the quiet moments in the match where both men wait to see what the other does next. Donnie talks some shit, because he knows he’s got this, even if the evidence at hand shows a man getting his ass kicked; but in between rounds they piece together Leo. They have him figured out and Donnie surprises him with a hidden left hook, just like his old man Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) used to do back in the day. What’s truly captivating about the way this scene is constructed is that they truly put you in the shoes of the boxers and give elegance to the dance that is professional boxing while also pinpointing grace moments like the camera idly pulling back to Donnie’s girlfriend, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and giving her a point of view moment into the action that only adds to the drama. We essentially see through her eyes after that single pull away from the camera. That’s never been done in boxing cinema before to this degree of success and, without Alberti, it likely wouldn’t have been an image of consideration.

It all comes back to Chantal Akerman and Babette Mangolte. There were certainly earlier women filmmakers and DPs, but the shift that was caused by Jeanne Dielman left such a long shadow on filmmaking that it’s still being reckoned with to this day. With Dielman, Akerman and Mangolte evolved the notion of the value of images most closely associated with womanhood at the time, like folding clothes, making the bed, and preparing dinner. The film establishes a tone of rhythmic stasis, letting the camera sit idly in static compositions that force the viewer to feel the passage of time and pick up on intricate details of feminine routine. Akerman grew up around a family of women and knew what that meant before the 1970s and asked us to consider a woman’s work. Often tossed aside and thought of as minimal, unimportant, and–most damning of all–expected, Akerman and Mangolte showed the difficulties in routine. Stasis could feel like home and any undoing of that could be utterly seismic. Jeanne Dielman was a woman’s life and the decision to plant the camera in a majority of medium shots framing the kitchen table, the bed, and the laundry while Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig) completed each task gave these images life. In doing so, it also gave credence to what the women who Akerman and Mangolte grew up with did with their lives, day in and day out.

Women see things differently, because everyone watches the world through their own unique viewpoints. When men constantly control the image and the storytelling they hold the cards. A woman can obviously shoot a man’s story and vice versa, but a personal touch is necessary. The lifeblood of art is in the singular experiences that make up our lives. Akerman and Mangolte watched the women in their lives fold clothes, so they made it cinematic. Maryse Alberti took a fight between two men and shifted it to a woman’s perspective in one single image. Caroline Champetier took Rivette’s fascinations with paranoia and conspiracy theories and made it about the space women inhabit when they’re together. We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the kind of cinema women can create when the camera is in their hands, and a film series like The Female Gaze displays the diversity in which we see the world, sometimes in conjunction with men, and in other instances with other women. While I am skeptical of the notion of one underlying experience connecting people of a certain gender and separating them from another, I do think it is fair to say that we don’t know what the cinema of women looks like because things have only recently begun to slowly shift. The films playing in this series showcase this idea, as the majority were made sometime during the 21st century. My hope is that this is only just the beginning, and we’ll soon see the full breadth of our cinematic potential.

The Female Gaze is now underway through August 9 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.


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