6 Things I've Learned From Female Filmmakers
Updated: Feb 12, 2020
It's weird to realize how many of my favorite filmmakers have been women.
Growing up, I didn't think about the sex of my favorite directors all that much. I loved film and the filmmakers that made them, regardless of their sex. I proudly told everyone that my favorite filmmaker was Nora Ephron and didn't think anything of it--except that I had to defend why the passionate superhero lover's favorite director was known primarily for making romantic comedies. However, as I've grown to overthink everything about my beloved profession, I've thought more about how women behind the camera have shaped my view of film--and the world.
The fact is, I owe a great deal to female filmmakers I've watched over the years. And I'm just now discovering how much. Typically I pick one topic to cover in detail in one (or sometimes three) blog posts. But with the growing interest but general lack of knowledge of female filmmakers in general, I thought I would give an overview of some of the ways women in film have shaped me as a filmmaker, film critic, and as a person. This way, you can know what great films by women are out there and can check them out. If you want me to delve more deeply into one of these topics in a future, let me know. Also, if you want me to do more of these survey posts, let me know. But for now, here are some of the topics I'm going to deal with in this
1. My love for screenwriting
2. Violence can be tender
3. Loving without approving
4. How do women see men?
5. How to portray faith with nuance
6. How to have a better male gaze
So let's get started.
1. My Love for Screenwriting - Nora Ephron - You've Got Mail
Lots of filmmakers and film critics think we American film audiences focus too much on story and not enough on the more specifically visual parts of this visual medium. Sadly, I probably won't be much help to them in correcting that, due partly to the influence of Nora Ephron.
Nora Ephron made me fall in love with the screenwriting craft of filmmaking from a very early age. She was the first filmmaker I really admired and I admired her first and foremost for how well she constructed her stories. My mom and I would listen to he audio commentaries she did for You've Got Mail and I would listen with rapped attention at how much thought she put into what she wrote: how she set up her characters (she wrote specific character moments so people would know Kathleen and Frank weren't right for each other without being told), how she set up the characters's environments (she envisioned New York as a collection of neighborhoods), how much she loved weaving in short essays of social commentary into her work (coffee as "legal-addictive stimulant"), how she set up her themes (being honest and intimate through hiding yourself), and then through the story how she paid all of those things--her characters, environment, social commentary, themes, all off. It was Nora Ephron who first showed me that films were a place where my analytical and word-obsessed mind could find a home and construct worlds that dealt with the issues I was interested in. I judged all movies based on her standards for years and for years most movies were left wanting to me.
2. Tender Violence - Patty Jenkins - Monster
When I saw Wonder Woman and realized that its director, Patty Jenkins, had only directed one other movie in her life, and it had won an Oscar, and it was about a female serial killer, I knew I had to check it out. What I saw blew me away and opened up to me a new way of looking at violence and storytelling.
Most serial killer stories feature villains who are focused and intentional with their violence. The killers kill because they have devalued the value of human life, whether it's because they've embraced nihilism (like The Joker in The Dark Knight) or they have a mental disorder (like in Zodiac, Mindhunters or Dexter). For whatever reason, violence is a manifestation of reducing humans to tools for your own agendas. But in Monster, violence is the product of a deep and tender love between two people. The film follows Aileen Wuornos and Selby Wall, who kill men in order to survive on the streets by themselves. Their sweet and gentle love drives the story and motivates many of their actions, from murder to anger, to reconciliation. Real human wants and caring is at the heart of every scene, a desire to find prince charming, being betrayed and abused, finding someone you love and desiring to protect them, fighting back at people who abuse you, fighting with each other, kissing and making up, fighting again. We are used to "bad" desires and emotions, like for power and domination, causing violence. But Patty Jenkins shows how "good" emotions, seemingly pure emotions, cause violence as well. This is incredibly accurate. As I've written on this blog before, being a more empathetic person--contrary to popular belief--doesn't automatically make you a better person but actually makes you a more vicious person as well. The movie leans into that. There whole movie feels beautiful and uncomfortable by constantly weaving these two threads of tenderness and violence together and showing how perfectly complimentary they are.
3. Loving Without Approving - Sofia Coppola - Marie Antoinette
Sofia Coppola is one of the few modern directors who can get me excited to see their movie by their name alone. Even if I don't care for the story she's telling, I always find the way she tells it enthralling.
One of the things that Sofia Coppola does better than any other director I've seen is make you care about characters without approving of them. Most directors want you to approve of the characters they write. That means that in order to make us like a character who is villainous the director tries to show us that they are somehow justified in their actions. Sofia Coppola doesn't do that. In her movies like Marie Antoinette, she shows you things from the protagonists point of view, and she shows how their actions are understandable, but she never makes you feel like you have to approve of what they did or even approve of them. This uncanny ability to separate love from approval is a lost art today, where people are splitting up with loved ones who disagree with them on politics. It is often too much for many people when they watch her films as well. Some of the critical reviews of Marie Antoinette criticized it for the specific reason that it didn't shame the queen enough for her disregard of the poor in France. I find this hilarious since most critics praise films for creating empathy for the villain--but for some reason that stops at Marie Antoinette. I personally agree that the best films are films that have moral force behind them. But I cannot deny that I have learned a great deal about what it looks like to love without approving, and how to convey that in stories, by watching Sofia Coppola do it so deftly.
4. How Do Women See Men? - Kathryn Bigelow - The Hurt Locker
Whenever you want to know yourself better, it's always good to ask a friend. People who are not you usually have a different perspective on you than what you have on yourself. Likewise, I've gained a great deal of important insight into my own manhood by seeing how women see men. From Jane Austen's depiction of Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, to Nora Ephron's Joe Fox in You've Got Mail, to Diane Keaton's two male leads and dissection of the male gaze in Something's Gotta Give. But there's something uniquely special about Kathryn Bigelow's depiction of manhood in her Oscar-winning film (which won both Best Picture and won her the first ever Best Director Oscar to go to a woman): The Hurt Locker.
The Hurt Locker is a fascinating exploration of masculinity from a female perspective. We are very used to men writing and directing movies centering on women which are clearly from a man's perspective, and we are even used to seeing female filmmakers make female-centered stories. But women writing male-centered stories is far less common. Here, Kathryn Bigelow follows a man in the male-dominated sphere of the military. The protagonist is a heightened version of very male attributes: he's a headstrong risk-taker, he's a hero who fights bad guys, he's a husband with single-minded attention to his job who neglects his wife and kids. We see all the typical tropes of the military hero but treated here in a way that is more alien and bizarre. We see something that celebrates traditional male attributes but one that also views it from the outside and observes it with some cautious skepticism. One of the most fascinating scenes is when the lead is wrestling with his military buddies in the barracks. On the one hand, you can see as a man that this is a typical form of bro-bonding. On the other hand, it seems so weird, so nonsensical, so perplexing. When I watched it, I was left with the revelation that this was how a lot of male bonding must appear to women.
These themes are especially obvious when you compare it to the movie American Sniper, a movie which has almost the exact same plot but it portrays the male characters and their struggles from the male perspective.
5. Faith with Nuance - Roxan Dawson - Breakthrough/Sharon Wilharm - Summer of 67
For this one I couldn't pick just one. I grew up in a Christian household, so I watched a lot of Christian films growing up. Yet it was hard to find a contemporary film from the perspective of a believer that portrayed faith with any deep nuance. Most seemed too eager to preach a sermon at the cost of the story, and seemed shy of portraying the complexity and uncertainty that can accompany faith. (And films like Silence and First Reformed never resonated with my experience.) This is difficult when I desire to tell stories about faith myself, yet yearn for examples of it done well, with some depth and subtlety.
For whatever reason, two of the best faith-based films regarding nuance and complexity come from two female directors. Roman Dawson directed this year's Breakthrough, about a family struggling with the impending death of their hospitalized son. Sharon Wilharm wrote and directed Summer of 67, a film about two sisters who struggle with their mother's suicide when they were kids, and worry over their men who've gone off to fight in Vietnam. Both of these films portray faith positively, but with sensitivity and without answering every question. Breakthrough asks and refuses to answer why God saves some people and not others. Summer of 67 asks and never answers why some people die in war and others don't. The movies refuse to either lionize or demonize anyone. Breakthrough portrays both Christians and atheists as flawed individuals doing the best they can. Summer of 67 portrays both supporters and opposers of the war sympathetically. Summer of 67 even engages in some astute racial commentary by focusing on how even when white and black Christians love and support each other, they still go to separate churches. Things like these help me see how to look at faith and filmmaking through a lens that's both affirming and complicated--the way it is in real life.
Summer of 67 is free on Amazon Prime Video.
6. How to Have a Better Male Gaze - Nancy Meyers - Something's Gotta Give
I have a mixed relationship with the phrase "the male gaze". In film, "the male gaze" technically refers simply to when a film shows things from a male perspective. It is a matter-of-fact statement about the point of view of the story and what the camera looks at and how. But usually when people use it there is an implied critique toward men in this phrase--that the male view of the world is bad. (Warning: strong sexual language in the link.) It is not simply that we need films that have both male and female perspectives; it is that men's perspective cannot be divorced from oppression that demeans women. Particularly you see this when people talk about the objectification of women in movies like Michael Bay's Transformers Franchise (a series full of the "male gaze"). This is something that I don't agree with. I don't see the male perspective as bad. It merely needs to be complimented by the female perspective.
This does, however, bring up a very personal struggle I have long had as a filmmaker. How do I express my male gaze or sexuality in a way that I feel comfortable with does not demean women? I think that male sexual attraction is healthy and beautiful and God-made. Yet, I have always had trouble figuring out how to express it honestly in the film medium in a way that doesn't demean women. Partly I'm sure this is due to my religious instincts that encourage caution in this area, as well as all the feminist literature that portrays all male sexuality with suspicion. But I also am not sure I can think of real examples in film that have shown me how I might express this experience properly.
Except maybe Something's Gotta Give.
Something's Gotta Give's opening is one of the best depictions of the male gaze in it's opening scene that I've ever seen in cinema. It truly is a subversive scene partly because it is by a female director portraying how a shameless playboy sees young and beautiful women--and this is the important part--without demeaning the women. Watch:
This moment portrays the male gaze so well because portrays the male appreciation of women without reducing women to that. It celebrates the beauty and desirability of women to men without making it seem like that's all that they are. It does it by doing two things: 1) constantly showing the whole woman, or 2) showing her face. By showing the whole woman the film refuses to reduce her to merely a set of body parts. And by constantly showing shots of their faces it is encouraging us to see her as not merely an object to be seen and desired but as person who can feel, think, want and desire. This is--believe it or not--a more accurate depiction of what the male gaze is typically like. There are many things men love about women and being around women--particular attractive features being only one of them.
So, thanks to Nancy Meyers, I've got a good place to start.
So there you have it. A brief overview of some of the films by female filmmakers that have prompted some of my famous overthinking. I hope that these inspire you to go out and look at these films as well or maybe see these old films in a new way. As we collectively cheer on new female filmmakers who make their mark on the industry, it's worth remembering how much we have to be grateful for to the ones who already have made their marks on us.
For my part, I can say this: St. Augustine described men and women as image bearers of God who--in some ways--only together could represent the likeness of God. I am grateful for the women in film who have helped me see the other half of God and the world he's made that I otherwise would forever be blind to.