“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
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
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 comfortable 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 ) 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
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
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