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June 1, 2012 10:40 AM
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Movie Lovers We Love: Joan's Digest Brings Fun, Flamboyant and Serious Feminism to Film Criticism

Miriam Bale

Abbey Bender makes the case that Susan Seidelman's "Desperately Seeking Susan" is an "exemplary feminist film," Imogen Smith takes a look at women urban observers and Farran Smith Nehme analyzes Whit Stillman's new film "Damsels in Distress."

Miriam Bale, a film critic and programmer based in New York City, launched Joan's Digest, an online film journal with critical essays written by women about women and film, last November. The longtime film freelancer launched the journal after taking a close look at her publications' contributors.

"There's definitely a boy's club in film journalism and film criticism," she said. "I felt like I had to fight to be included in editorial decisions. I did the math on one outlet I wrote for, and less than 10% of their reviews were written by women. Last year Sight and Sound had an essay contest for women writers, and the winner would maybe be published on the blog! It's so condescending! I wanted to show that women were perfectly capable of writing intelligently and in-depth about movies, they just needed the opportunity."

"It takes so much effort for women to get to the starting line, to get onto an editor's radar. I also wonder if sometimes the things that women are interested in -- the way they respond to certain movies -- may not be of interest to many male editors, but would be to many female readers. I've found that's true. In cinephile circles you see mostly men, but women cinephiles are out there. They're often just isolated from those nerd-herd scenes."

Bale said she started Joan's Digest as an experiment -- "I wanted to see what it would be like to have a community of women writers writing about film."  

The women who write for Joan's have all come at feminism from a different perspective. "We're into pretty serious feminism, and we'll send some heavy thinkers to each other as part of the research phase, but the pieces in the journal end up being also really fun and a little flamboyant. Instead of focusing on PC ideas of shoulds and shouldn'ts, we're focusing on complicated women who are not exactly role models."

Many of the "Joan's" that inspired the journal's name -- Joan Crawford, Joan Bennett, Joan Fontaine, Joan Riviere, Joan of Arc -- fit the bill. "I was looking to offer a kind of feminism I wasn't seeing -- bad women -- sometimes a little bitchy. But women, not girls. I want to make something that is an alternative to [websites like] jezebel or hellogiggles."

So far, Bale seems delighted with the progress of Joan's Digest.  The people who wanted to be involved come from various backgrounds:  "Our tone is varied.  We have a very loose relationship to footnotes! We have people from academia, and also people whose first exposure to Laura Mulvey was through [others' essays in] Joan's."

The next issue of Joan's Digest, set to be released this summer, will focus on women and labor, and will include an article on the unpaid labor that goes into actresses' bodies. To celebrate the release, Bale and Joan's are doing a screening on July 15 the Brooklyn Museum's Sackler Center for Feminist Art.  

Joan's is committed to putting on events; Bale is, after all, a curator.  She has programmed the roaming series Stuck on the Second Tier: Underknown Auteurs, where she screened films from the likes of Gregory La Cava ("Unfinished Business"), Robert Siodmak ("Phantom Lady") and Leo McCarey ("Ruggles of Red Gap"), and Bale is getting ready to announce some big plans in the near future.

Next week, Joan's will host two screenings honoring an honorary Joan, Jane Fonda: Fonda will present her new film "Peace Love and Misunderstanding" at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on June 6, and "9 to 5" will screen at 92Y Tribeca on June 7.

Joan's is also teaming up with the N+1 Feminist Research Team, Permanent Wave, and Women Make Movies to present an ongoing series of Radical Feminist screenings and discussions at Spectacle in Williamsburg. And she's starting a micro-film festival in September to celebrate "the rock 'n' roll DIY spirit of contemporary American cinema, post-mumblecore films working within and pushing against genre."  

The festival will announce its lineup later this month and will take place over a weekend in mid-September. In the meantime, the first two issues of Joan's Digest are available to read now.

Miriam Bale's Film Favorites: 

Films that Made the Most Impact:  "L'Amour Fou," "Objective, Burma!," "Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles," "The Ladies Man"

Favorite Joan: Joan Bennett

Favorite Female Director:  Amy Seimetz ("Sun Don't Shine"), Mia Hansen-Love, Olivia Wyatt ("The Pierced Heart & the Machete") 

Last Film You Saw:  On different formats, Fritz Lang's "The Indian Tomb" on 35mm, Barbara Loden's "The Boy Who Liked Deer" on Youtube, and on TCM, "Primrose Path." "It's by Gregory La Cava, a masterpiece.  Ginger Rogers is in it with Joel McCrea.  It's about prostitution, kind of a comedy and a drama. Totally my kind of thing!"

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