Why Are Female Directors Never Viewed as Part of a “Scene”?

In The New Yorker, Richard Brody has published a response to Manohla Dargis’ magnificent three-part series in the New York Times on the difficult road for female filmmakers in 2015. In Brody’s opinion, Dargis ignores the fact that there are genuinely talented female filmmakers out there — whether it’s Josephine Decker, who Brody proclaimed a “star” after the release of her first two films Thou Wast Mild and Lovely and Butter on the Latch, or Miranda July, whose Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future when it was reviewed, received fascinating reviews, ranging from “nope!” to “genius!”

For Brody, critics deserve the lion’s share of the blame for the way in which female directors are ignored, maligned, and dismissed. “Critical attention is all the more important for the makers of films that aren’t box-office hits,” he writes. “A review and some vigorous follow-ups can make clear the kind of important experience that awaits, an experience that may differ significantly from today’s mainstream but that, with the right breaks, should be tomorrow’s.” Brody’s correct, and in his work, he consistently highlights the newest directions of the avant-garde, the experimental, and the no-budget. He does a wonderful job of that advocacy.

Yet Brody is writing from a lucky and elevated perch, as somebody who’s been contributing to the New Yorker since 1999. He seemingly has the security to advocate for films, whereas, as I wrote about recently in a review of Scott Timberg’s book Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, the number of jobs for arts journalists and critics has declined rapidly in the last decade. This means that for every local critic for a now-defunct newspaper, you now have multiple bloggers paid peanuts to opine on arts — and if they want to keep getting paid, well, they’ll have to write about what the market wants. This sad state of affairs means that “critics,” a nebulous term these days, are mostly stuck writing about superhero movies. They’re not in a position to advocate, unlike Brody.

As a result, when filmmakers — especially younger filmmakers — are written about, they’re far more appealing if there’s a story behind them. Look at the “birth” of “mumblecore” in 2007. It took its name from a term dropped by one of the young directors, Andrew Bujalski, in an early interview, and soon there was a mumblecore “series” programmed at IFC in New York City in 2007. This led to a phalanx of no-budget movies made by twentysomething directors (including Joe Swanberg and the Duplass Brothers, with Greta Gerwig as the token female “muse”) being proclaimed a “scene” and getting into a variety of film festivals, from Sundance to South by Southwest. (In 2015, Gerwig has moved onto collaborating with her partner Noah Baumbach, but the results still treat her as a “muse.”)

Its apex may have come when the savvy Swanberg cast Gerwig and most of the “mumblecore” directors — including Bujalski, one Duplass, and Ry Russo-Young — in his 2007 film Hannah Takes the Stairs. Notably, the most interesting/lasting contributions from mumblecore have come from outliers. Look at Lena Dunham, who may have “come out” of the mumblecore scene with Tiny Furniture, but immediately got snapped up into bringing her millennial female voice to an HBO TV show — ironically, she’s become more famous than all these guys as a result, and she hasn’t made a film since. Being portrayed as a gang of brothers makes young artists more palatable: when Martha Marcy May Marlene came out to raves and Oscar-buzz for Elizabeth Olsen in 2011, director Sean Durkin did interviews with his collaborators in Borderline Films, stressing their gang mentality over the lone genius idea.

Being part of a gang or a scene gives you bona fides; bona fides that women rarely receive. Look at nearly all interviews with Desiree Akhavan (save ours), whose excellent Appropriate Behavior (which you could watch right now), shows a wonderfully deadpan voice and a point-of-view that we could use in the movies — yet again and again, she’s mentioned in the same breath as Dunham. And that’s fine as media shorthand, but on another level, it’s pitting Akhavan against Dunham, which sells Akhavan and Dunham’s talent short. Can’t we have a world where they both make funny movies about girls trying to figure stuff out? Particularly sex?

I think a lot of times this kind of critical fawning is well intentioned and generally the result of economics, with either selling a piece about “the new hip things” or selling a piece on a “hip woman, who is like another woman.” Critics and arts journalists need work too, especially these days. But the sort of press that came out of mumblecore means that all the directors who made these films are still working (heck, half of them were at Sundance 2015). Akhavan, on the other hand… I really, really want her to have a career, to be able to make a film every two-to-four years, but I wonder about whether she can get the funding in film if she’s not seen as a crucial part of a “scene.”

Both Dargis and Brody’s pieces are great parts of a complex conversation that we’ve been needing to have for a long time. The short version is there’s something wrong in the cinema. Anyone can make a movie, but for a female filmmaker to work at a third of the pace of a Joe Swanberg, a prolific filmmaker who’s never made an interesting movie, with actors like Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson chomping at the bit for roles, seems like a fantasy at the moment. I hate discovering movies I love by female filmmakers — how about the queer classic All Over Me, from 1997, by the Sichel sisters? — and then seeing these talents disappear from the screen. We’re losing something when we don’t celebrate a plurality of stories, and I’m not sure what has to change first — cinema or the media.