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, 1 November 2012

Revisiting Ealing's women


In connection with the publication of a new book Ealing Revisited, it seems like a good moment to look back at this most famous and - dread word but accurate in this instance - iconic of British film studios, and to think about Ealing's women (for more on this, see my chapter in the aforementioned collection). Ealing was not noted for its 'feminine touch'; the critic Kenneth Tynan summarised its output as focussing on 'men at work, men engrossed in a crisis, men who communicate with their women mostly by postcard'. It had Audrey Hepburn at its disposal for a while but failed to recognise the star potential in her which would soon be so triumphantly realised by Hollywood. But its head, Michael Balcon, was slightly touchy about the accusation that his company didn't 'know how to handle women', a criticism he deemed 'a little unjust'. He had a point: after all, it was at Ealing that Googie Withers had carved out a highly distinctive niche  playing passionate, strong-willed heroines who might be flawed but who were also the most dominant figures in the narratives in which they were featured, from the femme fatale of Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945) to the feminist farmer of The Loves of Joanna Godden (1947) and the tight-lipped Bethnal Green housewife with a dark secret in It Always Rains on Sundays (1947). The director Robert Hamer had a hand in all three of those films, and for Diana Morgan (pictured above), the only female contract scriptwriter at the studio, Hamer was one of the few men working at Ealing whose films 'give such parts to women. He was the only one who liked women, really.' Morgan enjoyed working at Ealing a great deal but described it as 'a very male studio', a place where her colleagues' distinctly unchivalrous nickname for her was 'the Welsh bitch'. The final film she worked on at Ealing, Dance Hall (1950), is one of the studio's most interesting 'women's pictures', centred on the intertwined lives of four female friends (Natasha Parry, Jane Hylton, Diana Dors, Petula Clark) who work at the same factory and frequent the same Palais de Danse in their time off.
Although Balcon was a great encourager and nurturer of new talent, this didn't extend to aspiring women directors who Balcon seems to have thought lacked the necessary authority to control a crew. Kay Mander tried and failed to get in and later Jill Craigie was similarly rebuffed. She wrote to Balcon in 1958 about trying to replicate the 'fantastic circulation' of women's magazines by making films appealing to the same demographic: 'young girls at work before they're married... our films are made as though we're completely unaware of this new generation.' But her offer was not taken up. Balcon's response to Craigie's letter ('there seems to be no immediate possibility of our working together on a picture. I mean, of course, in your capacity as a director') has been read by film historian Sue Harper as 'testament to his deafness to the female voice', and this sadly rings true, as well as ironically echoing Ealing's supremely moving drama about deafness and a female finding her voice, Mandy (1952). But there's also the question of bad timing. By 1958, when Craigie wrote to Balcon, Ealing was on its last legs anyway. Even back in 1956 one critic had suggested that the studio's film about student nurses, The Feminine Touch, represented Ealing's 'dying gasp'. But in its postwar heyday, it had offered some more interesting and diverse representations of women than its reputation sometimes suggests. And some of them even had the 'feminine touch' of their sole woman writer Diana Morgan.

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