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Daily Reads: Why Aren’t There More Female-Directed Films on Home Video, The Long Take Is Hollywood’s Most Special Effect, and More

Daily Reads: Why Aren't There More Female-Directed Films on Home Video, The Long Take Is Hollywood's Most Special Effect, and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. No Home Video: On The Lack of Women-Directed Films in Home Media.
Boutique distribution labels thrive on providing quality films in fancy sets for cinephiles to devour. A label like the Criterion Collection preaches respect and legacy, and the films they release have that mark. So why are there so few female-directed films from Criterion and other boutique labels? Movie Mezzanine’s Tina Hassannia reports on this issue.

Peruse the comments and posts on The Criterion Collection’s Facebook page and you’ll see a never-ending list of requests from cinephiles. In the last week, 30 people alone requested Todd Haynes’ “Carol,” which recently came out on Blu-ray in a bare-bones package. Another fun Twitter search: “I wish Criterion would.” As you might imagine, there are hundreds of such tweets. Cinephiles are an obsessive lot. We get excited about movies and in the process we become advocates. The more inaccessible or overlooked the film, the more ardent we become. We want others to share our excitement, but access is paramount, and nothing assures excitement around a film quite like a Criterion release. As Joe Rubin, co-founder of cult DVD label Vinegar Syndrome, puts it: “Every Criterion film is an event.” One consistent request on Twitter from female film critics and cinephiles in particular is more female-directed films. Last month, film critic Sophie Mayer analyzed Criterion’s entire collection and found that only 21 of their titles were directed or co-directed by women (including films released under Criterion’s Eclipse banner). That’s 2.6% of the whole collection, which in Mayer’s estimation is a “pretty meagre number.” As telling as that number might be about a potential gender bias, the statistic only scratches the surface of what is a much broader and more complicated picture when it comes to releasing female-directed films on home video. It’s worth pointing out other characteristics of Criterion’s collection in relation to that figure. While Mayer notes a higher number of films are directed by women in mainstream film — a still-measly 7% — Criterion’s titles represent a diverse number of cinemas that do not fall necessarily in the mainstream category; it would likely be impossible to determine the percentage of women directors in every national cinema around the world since the birth of movies. That number is likely to be much lower than 7%. The 2.6% number also doesn’t account for the decades when there were few working women directors around the world. While women directed movies in the early Hollywood era, the profession became mostly male territory by the 1930s, and for several subsequent decades, there were almost no female directors working at all in the studio system (with some notable exceptions, like Ida Lupino). Even by the 1960s, some of the world cinemas we cherish today were only starting to find their roots and hadn’t yet standardized the practice, or even implicitly decided to allow, encourage, or prohibit women to helm a picture. There were also more notable films made by women in the 1930s-1960s in other types of cinema — like avant-garde, independent, and documentary films — than in Hollywood. This hasn’t changed that much in the last half-century, as the gender bias in Hollywood continues to be a systemic problem. Even so, think of your favorite female-directed films: no matter which genre or country they hail from, the largest percentage were likely made in the 1970s or later. Despite the continuing gender bias, more women have been making movies of note in the last 30 to 40 years than in the decades preceding. This is an important factor to consider, as more than half of Criterion’s collection are films that were made in the 1930s-’70s. Much of their library derives from a period when there were generally fewer working female filmmakers.

2. Why The Long Take Is Hollywood’s Most Special Effect.
Recent films like “Birdman” and “Victoria” have revived some interest in the long take, the showy filmmaking technique that captures action without the need to cut. Some films like Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” employ the long take with purpose and craft, but others do it just to prove they can, a much less momentous feat when you can shoot a movie digitally nowadays. Telegraph’s Robbie Collin examines the long take and why it’s Hollywood’s most special effect.

One reason long takes have become so fashionable is because they can now be pieced together digitally, so directors don;t actually have to make them work on set. Effectively, they’re just another special effect – which perhaps explains why at least one featured in almost every major blockbuster released last year, including “Jurassic World,” “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation,” “Tomorrowland,” “Ant-Man,” “San Andreas” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” With the honorable exception of “Victoria,” none of the examples above are the real deal. Take “Spectre’s”: it’s a composite of six shots, filmed variously on location and against green-screen studio backdrops. That doesn’t diminish the artistry involved in creating the sequence, but it does make it an awful lot easier to pull off. Part of the magic of long takes comes down to their sheer versatility. They can immerse you in a moment or yank you out of it by the scruff of your neck, make time roar past like a river or slow down to a methodical drip. One that gets everything right – and which I think any article on long takes is legally obliged to mention – is the three-minute sequence in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” in which Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) takes his girlfriend (Lorraine Bracco) into the Copacabana nightclub. A Steadicam follows them into the back door, down various dimly lit corridors, through the kitchen, and into the VIP section. The shot isn’t just thrilling because of its miraculous planning and staging: it’s a perfect illustration of Henry’s soaring status as a mobster, as he glides unhindered through the middle of one of New York’s busiest and most exclusive joints. At the start of the film, when Henry’s still a wannabe, the glamour of the Mafia lifestyle is mostly shown in strings of isolated close-ups. Those shots say “I want”: the long take says “I am.” That “Goodfellas” shot inspired countless others, the three-minute nightclub-set opening to Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” and the truly dizzying 13-minute roam around a packed Atlantic City boxing arena that begins Brian De Palma’s “Snake Eyes” among them. De Palma concealed eight cuts in that sequence – three more than Alfred Hitchcock hid in the entirety of his 1948 thriller “Rope.”

3. The Villain Gap: Why Soviet Movies Rarely Had American Bad Guys.
It’s been Cold War week this past week at The A.V. Club and the site has published countless articles and pieces looking back at Cold War pop culture. Staff film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky examines why Soviet movies rarely had American bad guys.

March 23, 1987: Hollywood in the twilight of the Cold War. Three weeks earlier, Ronald Reagan — who had headed the Screen Actor’s Guild in the heyday of anti-communist paranoia, and had been an FBI informant within the industry — goes on television to finally accept responsibility for his administration’s secret weapons sales to Iran. The miniseries “Amerika,” which depicts a near-future United States under Soviet control, has recently aired on ABC. The Eastern Bloc is groaning in anticipation of imminent collapse. At the American Film Institute, a group of Hollywood veterans meets with a visiting delegation from the USSR, led by Elem Klimov, director of “Come And See” and head of the Soviet filmmakers’ union. They are here to watch each other’s films as part of a panel called “Beyond Stereotypes,” to be followed by a three-hour discussion between Klimov and actor-director Sydney Pollack at the Director’s Guild Of America. Part of the AFI event is meant to play like a game of dozens, with each side showing their worst onscreen stereotypes of the other. There are bursts of embarrassed laughter from both sides, but also a growing sense of the disparity between the way East and West tackled each other on film. There are propaganda pieces from the Stalinist era and warnings of corrupting capitalist influence that rival the anti-communist scaremongering of the McCarthy era. There are characters who pick life in the USSR over America when faced with the choice. But there is no Soviet answer to “Red Dawn” or either of the movies titled “Invasion, U.S.A.,” and no violent fantasies of ordinary people gunning down the American threat. There are no villains on the order of “Rocky IV” or “Rambo: First Blood Part II.” “We out-stereotyped you,” declares Franklin J. Schaffner, director of “Patton” and “Planet Of The Apes.” Sylvester Stallone does not attend, as he is currently in pre-production on “Rambo III,” in which he will personally fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Reporting on the event a few days later, “The New York Times” reaches out for comment to Robert Chartoff, producer of the “Rocky” series as well as such classics as “Point Blank” and “Raging Bull.” Chartoff expresses regret at the characterization of Ivan Drago, the Russian killing machine played by Dolph Lundgren in “Rocky IV.” But, as he explains, “You need worthy villains.”

4. “American Psycho” at 25: Bret Easton Ellis on Patrick Bateman’s Legacy.
Bret Easton Ellis’ “American Psycho” was a controversial book and an equally controversial film upon release for its graphic, dispassionate violence. For Rolling Stone, Kory Grow sits down with Ellis to discuss the book’s legacy 25 years later.

Has the way that Patrick Bateman has become a cult character surprised you?

What if I said, no? [Pause.] I’m kidding [laughs]. Of course, it was surprising to me.”American Psycho” was an experimental novel. I wasn’t really quite sure, nor did I care, how many copies it was going to sell. I really didn’t care who connected with it.

Why is that?

I created this guy who becomes this emblem for yuppie despair in the Reagan Eighties – a very specific time and place – and yet he’s really infused with my own pain and what I was going through as a guy in his 20s, trying to fit into a society that he doesn’t necessarily want to fit into but doesn’t really know what the other options are. That was Patrick Bateman to me. It was trying to become a kind of ideal man because that seemed to be the only kind of a guy that was “accepted.” Bateman keeps saying, “I want to fit in.” I felt that way too. It’s very surprising and completely shocking that a novel that I was writing in 1987, 1988 and ’89, is being referenced now. Certainly the movie helped move it into a higher plane of consciousness for a lot of people. But it is surprising.

Long before the movie, though, the book was controversial.

I mean, what novels are controversial anymore? That world is gone. I don’t think that it’s possible, post-Internet and social media, to write a piece of fiction that would cause that sort of controversy. Whether the book should’ve caused controversy or not, that’s the other question. I think it’s always seemed to be an honest book in many ways, and I know there are a few people who laugh at me when I say that.

5. Bette Davis: Cinematic Medusa.
It’s the end of Women’s Writers Week at RogerEbert.com today, which featured reviews, critical pieces, and articles exclusively written by women. For the site, Angelica Jade Bastien pens an appreciation of Bette Davis.

There’s an infuriating, likely apocryphal, story that, after her first screen test, 
Bette Davis was described as having less sex appeal than the dopey, gangly, and dramatically unsexy comedic actor Slim Summerville. This may never have actually happened, but it feels true considering the longstanding belief that Bette doesn’t just contradict our expectations of how a major Hollywood star was supposed to look at that time but that she’s outright ugly. She isn’t. But that’s not the point. At the beginning of her career no one at Warner Brothers had any idea what to do with her. Then she had a shock of platinum blonde hair, a slim waist, the sort of beauty that electrifies more than allures, and huge doll eyes flickering with a strange luminosity often communicating more than the paltry scripts given to her. Even this early on, there is a spark of something powerful and the beginnings of what would be the foremost thematic preoccupation in her career: anger. It is because of this, in spite of what the studio system’s machinery sought to shape her into, that she became not only a star but one of the most elemental, powerful actresses ever to grace the screen. In the early 1930s through the 1940s Bette was at the forefront of a curious subgenre known as the women’s picture. The women’s picture could take the shape of a bitter, hothouse noir (“Leave Her to Heaven,” 1945), a musical (“Cover Girl,” 1941), a sharp drama (“Born to Be Bad,” 1950), or an epic melodrama (“Gone with the Wind,” 1939). Despite its shapeshifter status, what links the genre is its concern with placing women — along with their emotional, intellectual, psychological and social experiences — at the center of their own cinematic world. Bette’s image was the perfect balance of china and steel, vulnerability and strength that articulated the shifting cultural dynamics her audience was experiencing during World War II. Underneath this image of the go-getter modern woman, Bette subverts a myth that is perhaps the most recognizable image of female anger in the Western world.

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