Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Why 'Mamma Mia!' matters


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 -