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, 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.

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