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…


Friday, 22 November 2013

The Song of the Shirt (Clayton&Curling, 1979)



JACK BRINDELLI @JackBrindelli

At first glance, The Song of the Shirt is hard to enjoy. The opening consists of migraine-inducing overlapping texts; squawking free-form clarinets, and jumbled quick-fire quotes. It seems initially that this attempt to deconstruct the grand narratives of liberal history, and reform the component parts into a radical critique, lacks any kind of structural coherence. However, it soon emerges that this actually a brilliant foreshadowing of the structure of the film. Eventually, out of the chaos comes a brilliantly orchestrated profundity.

From a 21st century perspective, Sue Clayton and Jonathon Curling’s film grates at first, but when it comes together, it resembles a beautiful pointillist portrait – putting small particles together to construct a meaningful whole. It is a style that has since become common-place in mainstream cinema. From Pulp Fiction (1994) to Cloud Atlas (2012), this non-linear, scrap-book-narrative style is one many cinema goers will now be familiar with.

Were the film made today, with the benefit of other forebears laying groundwork, Clayton and Curling’s vision would be a great deal more polished, and probably better remembered. As it is, the film has lain dormant amongst a catalogue of similar forgotten pioneers. Fortunately, it was dusted off and revived this week by the Genesis Cinema in Whitechapel, London, as a result of Sue Clayton’s new work for the Leydon Gallery, resurrecting the film’s character of the seamstress, placing her in modern London.

In the film, as the fragments of the past come together, we see through the plight of the penniless seamstresses, supposedly beneficiaries of the industrial revolution, how capitalism reduces millions of people to lives of exploitation, bereft of hope and dignity. However, whilst class is central to its message, the film makes as an important point when it then brings in a second strand of oppression that interplays with it; gender. We see how those critical of the suffering brought about by economic relations, and those who advocate the emancipation of the working man, can also conflictingly reinforce the subjugation of women. Clayton and Curling flag up crude, hypocritical domination of male trade unionists decrying how women are driving down their husband’s wages, and calling for women to withdraw to home-life; but we also see this coupled with a critique of the ideological objectification that women suffer in patriarchal literature. 
This is illustrated by a behind-the-scenes-style exchange between the authors of The Wrongs of a Woman, a Victorian newspaper serial, in which the impoverished female protagonist falls for a wealthy student. After part 3 leaves the couple in each others arms, a discussion takes place as to how it should end – the “inevitable” conclusion being that “she should commit suicide” to further illustrate the horrors of poverty. The male authors are displayed here as key to patriarchal ideology, as objectifying female characters like this perpetuates their domination – depriving women of agency, making them hapless tools of the fates, and dependent on men of power, and men more generally, to ensure their survival.

The film itself by contrast is unwilling to give us even this depressing closure in its conclusion. The women of the piece - exploited and desperate as they are - are neither driven to suicide or to revolution. Their fate remains ambiguous, as if to suggest that the struggle remains unresolved to this day. This is the genius of The Song of the Shirt though; it pulls apart the grand historical narrative of male-driven progress – found in ‘factual’ and fictional materials - and reconstructs the constituent parts into a call to arms against modern-day patriarchal capitalism.  The film’s revival should not stop here then – after all this time, it deserves greater recognition than a one off screening. This forgotten gem about ‘lowly’ seamstresses counters the grand historical fabrications that working class women’s fate is in anybody’s hands but their own – a lesson that still needs learning, over three decades later. 

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