“Shady Ladies of the Eighties”


Co-author: Cristina Álvarez López


There was independent cinema, all over the world, before the “indie” tag came along as a marketing label in the mid-to-late 1980s. Independent in production set-up, independent in attitude. But once indie – or even, god help us, “Indiewood” – took hold as a label, especially in America, it encouraged a widespread amnesia in many parts of global film culture.


Independent USA cinema came to be identified solely with Jim Jarmusch, John Sayles, Steven Soderbergh, Whit Stillman, Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith … several of whom were promoted relentlessly through the production/distribution/exhibition tentacles of Miramax and similar companies.


This was an overwhelmingly male group of “indie mavericks”. Some of them, like Jarmusch, Sayles and (from the 1970s) Jonathan Demme kept the faith with their independent roots and helped out their old friends and colleagues whenever possible. But a large group of women filmmakers found themselves overlooked and sidelined, struggling for a foothold as the 1990s rolled in. Some did make it through into the American indie wave – particularly Kathryn Bigelow, whose exciting reworkings of genre formulae of horror and thriller in Near Dark (1987) and Blue Steel (1990) presaged her later move into the “Oscar-winning” centre of the Hollywood system.


Penelope Spheeris, after a strong and reasonably prolific ‘80s decade across fiction and music documentary, hit the jackpot with the surprise success of Wayne’s World (1992) – but eventually, in 2012, opted out of a film and TV production system that had become too constraining; a bad experience with the Weinstein brothers on Senseless in 1998 didn’t help matters any. Lizzie Borden also suffered with Miramax; after her Working Girls (1986) had been distributed by the company, she came to grief with them during the shooting, completion and selling of Love Crimes (1992) – even the later, revamped “director’s cut” was not authorised by its actual director!


Increasingly, around the world, people are now revisiting women’s achievements in the cinema of the 1980s. Some of these successes were precarious at the time, and their endurance into the present day has proven even more fragile: how many “prestige” DVD releases are currently devoted to these films, if they happen to lack the pop cachet that has accrued to Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, 1982) or Susan Seidelman, who had the good fortune to collaborate with singer Madonna and comedian Roseanne Barr?


In a sense, American women have generally fared worse, in this regard, than the most revered of their European counterparts, such as Agnès Varda or Chantal Akerman (both of whom made a number of films in the USA between the 1960s and the ‘90s). Even Barbara Loden’s masterpiece Wanda (1970), a crucial forerunner to the most radical American women’s cinema of the ‘80s, has had to wait almost 50 years – long past the director’s death – for a worthy edition; and a similar time-lag has inhibited the true appreciation of the black comedies of writer-director Elaine May.


The women who succeeded in making features during the 1980s in America are not a unified, homogenous group. They came from diverse places and backgrounds: some from film school (Seidelman, Karen Arthur), others from art school and/or social-issue documentary (Martha Coolidge, Joyce Chopra), and still others from the rough-and-tumble laboratory of Roger Corman’s B genre productions (Joan Freeman, Kristine Peterson, Tina Hirsch).


Marisa Silver had a family connection to cinema, as daughter of the pioneering 1970s director Joan Micklin Silver (Hester Street, 1975). Maggie Greenwald´s first feature, Home Remedy (1987), was noticed at European film festivals before her homeland granted her a stop-start career in cinema and television. By the end of the decade, a film school graduate such as Nancy Savoca (True Love, 1989) was able to benefit from the support enabled by Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival.


But there is already a big distance travelled, in tone and style of cinema, between the often confrontational work by women at the start of the 1980s and the softer, more humanist brand of comedy-drama underwritten by Sundance and Miramax by the end of this period.


A key factor in understanding this slice of time is the influence of the culture loosely gathered around the punk scene of the early to mid ‘80s, with its combination of music, fashion, design, writing and theory – the No Wave, as it was sometimes known. Bigelow, for instance, began her creative life as part of the conceptual Art and Language group, and these avant-garde roots are reflected in her first feature, The Loveless (1981) co-directed with David Lynch’s associate, Monty Montgomery.


Whereas the feminism of the 1970s had been recognisably leftist in its political orientation, punk offered something more provocative, sometimes labelled (rightly or not) a post-feminism. Punk refused the confortable moralism of being, for example, anti-pornography: while deeply aware of all patriarchal structures, it demanded the right for women’s desires to explore any heretofore forbidden path they pleased. This is the sort of sensibility emblazoned in the prodigious writings – cutting across fiction and non-fiction, essay and fantasy – of Kathy Acker.


Seidelman observed the punk scene – ­as an anthropologist, as she describes herself – and absorbed it into both her feature debut Smithereens (1982) and her breakthrough mainstream hit, Desperately Seeking Susan (1985). Bette Gordon, Beth B, Vivienne Dick, Sara Driver and others lived it – not just as individual artists, but also as a collective adventure. As Gordon has often said, commercial success was not on their minds in the early 1980s; it was more important to get the work done and relate directly to whatever audiences found their way, by curiosity, to it.


For instance, Gordon’s remarkable Variety (1983) written with Acker – a co-production between US, Germany and UK – found its audience in those years not only in specialist cinemas and international film festivals, but also in groundbreaking academic conferences like 1982’s “Towards a Politics of Sexuality” in New York, published in 1984 as the book Pleasure and Danger – a very punk title!


Some commonalities and recurring themes – as well as certain identifiably hip actors of the period, such as Will Patton or Ann Magnuson – unite these films. There’s a microscopic interest in the often punishing banalities of daily life – the drudgery of work, power-relations on the job – in both Variety (Sandy McLeod as Christine hemmed into her tiny ticket-box at the porn cinema) and Working Girls (where prostitution has nothing whatsoever “erotic” about it).


As if in response to the influential theories of Laura Mulvey and others during the ‘70s – the famous notion of cinema as, historically, a predominantly “male gaze” objectifying the bodies of women as spectacle – all these films put women’s bodies, whether active or passive, at the centre of the image and of the story. We then witness a complex tug-of-war between crushing victimisation and new means of resisting power or seizing the reins.


But there are different styles, different emphases, different approaches and experiments from film to film. In Smithereens, Seidelman employs a largely naturalistic, matter-of-fact, observational mode of staging and filming, peppered with glimpses of music and street-fashion that anticipate an entire MTV (music video) wave in ‘80s cinema.


In Working Girls, Borden forsakes the collage method she had previously used in Born in Flames (1983, featuring Bigelow) in order to plonk us down in the few, cramped rooms of a brothel – and all shot from a limited number of deliberately claustrophobic angles, evoking at once cheap TV soap opera and the chamber-melodramas of Rainer Werner Fassbinder.


Variety possesses a distinctive, neon-lit look (cinematography by Tom DiCillo, on his way to becoming a director in the ‘90s, and John Foster) that now glows with a certain grungy nostalgia, especially alongside the TV series The Deuce (2017-2019). Oh, for the days when porno meant film prints actually projected in Times Square movie theatres! Gordon lovingly references popular genre – a noir mystery involving corrupt, capitalist business, anticipating many later Berlin School films – without ever fully triggering the mechanism that demands complete narrative explication and resolution.


By contrast, Desperately Seeking Susan – despite the intermittently evident fact that the script by Leora Barish (who later worked with Chantal Akerman on Golden Eighties  [1986]) is inspired by Jacques Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974) – is more devoted to the tricky tying-up of multiple plot threads and characters, all gathered in one location for the bright, optimistic finale. Of all the women filmmakers touched by the punk phenomenon, it was certainly Seidelman who moved most easily – for a while, at least – into the formulae of Hollywood entertainment.


Bette Gordon’s involvement with filmmaking predates New York’s punk movement. Her earliest films of the 1970s, made in Wisconsin, were done in collaboration with James Benning; The United States of America (1975) and her solo Exchanges (1979) are rigorously formal, structuralist works that nonetheless, as Chale Nafus has observed, “are well grounded in a specific historical time and cultural context”. Her first New York film, Empty Suitcases (1980), plays more with a narrative element, but within an experimental and political framework influenced by Jean-Luc Godard: elements of everyday life mix with atmospheres of eroticism and menace, and questions of gender and sexual difference come to the fore.


For Variety, Gordon drew upon the inestimable talent in her New York circle: not only Acker, but also celebrated photographer Nan Goldin (The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, 1986), writer Cookie Mueller, and musician John Lurie for a suitably noir jazz score. (Lead actor McLeod more frequently worked on the production side for Demme, Sayles and others). The monologue-artist Spalding Gray, who appeared in Gordon’s Super-8 draft for Variety titled Anybody’s Woman (1982), provides the voice of the obscene caller on Christine’s answering machine. Variety explores the ways in which a woman feels both alienated from, and prodded into action by, heavily masculine city spaces, from porn cinema to fish market and corporate centres. At the same time, it is about the ambiguous possibilities of dreaming, desiring, projecting oneself into fantasies.


Where did these women go once the brief boom of the ‘80s was over? Where are they today? Some (Arthur, Savoca, Heckerling) went into television, on series episode work and telemovies – where, no doubt, their individual voices and signatures can be rather muted. Gordon has supported herself by teaching at Columbia University since the early ‘90s; after Variety, she has so far made three further features, Luminous Motion (1998), Handsome Harry (2009) and The Drowning (2016), each one looking at situations mingling sex, gender and violence from a very different angle; she now has a TV project she hopes to do.


Marisa Silver co-directed her last film in 1991 and turned instead to writing fiction. Beth B has been making documentaries, often on figures from the ‘80s such as singer-writer Lydia Lunch. And others, such as Joan Freeman, Fran Rubel Kuzui (maker of the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie in 1992) and horror director Marina Sargenti, have seemingly disappeared from audiovisual production altogether in the 21st century.


Lizzie Borden, while pursuing several major projects that still remain to be made, had a less-than-satisfying time collaborating with “Playboy TV” – it is a veritable sign of the ‘90s that, by the middle of the decade, she had signed an episode of a “female anthology” titled Erotique (the other, non-American contributors were Clara Law, Monika Treut and Ana Maria Magalhães), while Seidelman contributed to an “adult” TV series later assembled into the omnibus feature, Tales of Erotica.


Seidelman, while surviving in the mainstream industry, has found herself increasingly typecast for various directorial services: soft erotica, kooky romantic comedy, female-friendship and getting-older stories. These formats tend to represent, for better or worse, the female genres of contemporary Hollywood (and Netflix-type TV) in the era of successful, populist screen storytellers like Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers.


Looking back on Variety in 2001, Amy Taubin (quoted in Nafus) rightly noted: “Gordon realised that the problem of the objectification of women in film has less to do with the display of the body than with who has control of the narrative – of the desire that motors it and of how that desire is resolved or left as an opening into the unknown”. For all our “shady ladies of the eighties”, desire – triggering both a vexed intersection of social constraints, and the glimpse of a better, freer future – forms the central issue, as well as providing a powerful creative drive in itself.


This essay accompanied a program stream, “Shady Ladies of the Eighties”, that formed part of the 2019 Zomer Film College in Antwerp, organised by Bart Versteirt for Cinea (Belgium).


© Cristina Álvarez López & Adrian Martin June 2019

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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