They Were There Too: Ten Female Directors to Add to TCM’s “Trailblazing Women” Series

Director Isabel Coixet on the set of My Life Without Me in 2002.

This month Turner Classic Movies has been broadcasting a series of films from female directors as part of their “Trailblazing Women” series, airing on every Tuesday and Thursday in October. While four dozen groundbreaking women have been included in the schedule, which is hosted by actress/writer/producer Illeana Douglas, there are more women and films that I would have chosen if I had curated the program. Here are a few examples.

The Last Stage (1948), dir. Wanda Jakubowska – Given that TCM’s programming is an overview of more than 100 years of filmmaking and there is only so much that can be included from each country and era (although the focus is primarily on works by American women), of course there are many notable directors who have not been included in the series. It would have been great to see works by María Luisa Bemberg (Argentina), Susanne Bier (Denmark), Muriel Box (England), Jane Campion (New Zealand), Vera Chytilová (Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic), Claire Denis (France), Safi Faye (Senegal), Marleen Gorris (Netherlands), Ann Hui (Hong Kong), Tahmineh Milani (Iran), María Novaro (Mexico) and Margarethe von Trotta (Germany), just to name a few. If I had to pick one particularly important foreign film to include, I would have chosen The Last Stage (1948), directed by Wanda Jakubowska (1907-1998). Jakubowska used her experiences as a Polish-Jewish survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp as the source material for a drama about women struggling with life and death in that camp. Nowadays moviegoers probably take it for granted that World War II is a popular topic for filmmakers – often considered “Oscar bait” depending on the amount of melodrama in the performances – but the subject meant something very different to Jakubowska, who lived through one of the most harrowing traumas imaginable and told her story at a time when the subject was still fresh (and painful) in many people’s minds, among the first filmmakers to make a movie about survival inside a concentration camp. Additionally Jakubowska utilized the horrifying realism of filming on location at Auschwitz.

Indecent Desires (1968), dir. Doris Wishman – The exploitation (or “sexploitation”) films of the 1960s and 70s don’t get much airtime on TCM, except maybe late on Saturday night during the “Underground” block of programming for films that are not mainstream and considered a little too weird for the channel’s typical consumers. As a result, women like Dorothy Davenport (an early entrant in this field in the 1920s and 30s), Roberta Findlay (maker of many sexploitation, porn and horror movies between the 1960s and 1980s), Stephanie Rothman (a protegée of Roger Corman, directing sex, gore and crime in The Student Nurses, The Velvet Vampire and Terminal Island) and Barbara Peeters, the first woman to direct a biker flick (Bury Me an Angel), have been left off the list for this month. My own personal choice would be Doris Wishman (1912-2002), a director who tested the limits of taste on every possible occasion. To most eyes her films are poorly made, edited together haphazardly and displaying bizarre uses of ADR (the post-production dubbing of voices to match the actors’ mouths) which meant that dialogue never came out of anyone’s lips correctly. For those interested in the seedy, creepy world of mid-to-late-60s New York as seen on a super-low budget, Wishman’s films (which she often wrote and produced and sometimes edited) are fascinatingly weird and unquestionably unique. Indecent Desires (1968) is one of my favorites because it has all the best things you can get in a Wishman B-movie: random nudity (like when lead actress Sharon Kent answers her phone after getting home from work); strange camera angles (here is another character exercising, again a woman in the buff); the antagonist’s (Michael Alaimo) realization that Kent, with whom he is obsessed, resembles a doll he has at home (hence this superimposition over Kent’s image when Alaimo sees her on the street); my favorite part, a bizarre dream sequence in which Alaimo imagines a rendezvous with Kent, which also involves him looking at her body from oddly-positioned perspectives. All of this was photographed by C. Davis Smith, a cinematographer who also worked on Wishman’s most famous film (largely in part of the eye-catching title), Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965). I don’t know if Wishman kept working with so many of the same actors and crew members because they believed in some genuine talent of hers or because they just needed the paychecks, but I’d like to think that Smith saw something compelling in Wishman’s visions (and visuals) of women’s bodies, desires (for sex, money, the purported normalcy of marriage/being a housewife) and fears over upsetting the rules of polite society.

Variety (1983), dir. Bette Gordon – Set in the parts of Times Square where films by Doris Wishman and other sexploitation and porn films would have been shown, Variety is the first feature film by Bette Gordon (b. 1950). It boasts a script by Kathy Acker, a feminist writer who was never one to shy away from bold imagery and sexually explicit dialogue. The protagonist of Variety (played by Sandy McLeod) takes a job as the ticket-seller at a porn theater’s box office and she subsequently changes her understanding of her friendships and romantic relationships, exploring what it means for a woman to be both attracted to and repulsed by the films shown in the theater and the men (and it’s always only men) who are in the audience.

Orlando (1992), dir. Sally Potter – Lead actress Tilda Swinton blurs the distinctions between male and female in this adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel of the same name, for which director Sally Potter (b. 1949) also wrote the screenplay. Orlando’s story spans four hundred years as the immortal character changes from a man to a woman, evolving as he (then she) learns the conventions and fashions associated with the female body as England’s social norms and fashions transform over the centuries. Sally Potter also co-composed the film’s score, music that is particularly effective in the scene in which Orlando escapes one era’s limitations against women by running through a maze that leads her into another century.

Eve’s Bayou (1997), dir. Kasi Lemmons – One night of screenings focuses on African-American women directors, pointing the spotlight on Kathleen Collins (Losing Ground), Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust), Leslie Harris (Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.) and Ava DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere). A major oversight on TCM’s part is Eve’s Bayou (1997), the debut feature by actress-turned-director Kasi Lemmons (b. 1961). The film is set in Louisiana circa 1962, telling the stories of many women in the Batiste family as seen through the eyes of ten-year-old Eve Batiste (Jurnee Smollett). A Southern Gothic feel pervades the film, which was also written by Kasi Lemmons and has more women behind the camera in the crucial tasks of cinematography (Amy Vincent), editing (Terilyn A. Shropshire), costume design (Karyn Wagner), art direction (Adele Plauche) and set decoration (Joanne Schmidt).

My Life Without Me (2003), dir. Isabel Coixet – This drama did not get good reviews when it came out, likened to Love Story and other sappy, overwrought tales of women diagnosed with terminal cancer. Isabel Coixet’s (b. 1960) film offers a beautiful lead performance by Canadian actress Sarah Polley (herself a director too), explaining the fears of a woman dying in her early 20s, the anger over leaving her two young children without a mother and the frustrations of having never done as much as she wanted to in her small-town life. Adjectives like “selfish” and “egocentric” were thrown around by Roger Ebert and A.O. Scott in their reviews, when they described Polley’s character’s decisions not to tell her family and friends about her illness and to embark on an affair, just to see what it would be like to sleep with a man other than her husband; I see these choices as realistic given the character’s terrible situation and the knowledge that she has so little time left to do anything, so she has the right to decide what she wants to do with her body and her mind.

Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), dir. Miranda July – It would be exciting if TCM could show Miranda July’s (b. 1974) debut feature, a dark comedy about misfits that pushes the boundaries of American independent film into unusual and sometimes taboo places. It also offers the rare opportunity to see character actor John Hawkes play a romantic lead, a shoe salesman with whom July’s character falls in love. Their weird journey and the arcs of the supporting characters (including those of Hawkes’ two sons, the older of whom has disturbing encounters with two teenage girls and the younger of whom has online conversations with a pedophile) is unlike anything else that American women directors have been making.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010), dirs. Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg – Joan Rivers was a certainly a trailblazer among women comedians, and this documentary by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg shows Rivers’ genius for telling jokes, her insecurities and the ups and downs of her relationship with her daughter Melissa after Rivers’ husband Edgar Rosenberg committed suicide in 1987. It is a revealing portrait of a pioneering comedienne. A little-remembered side note: Rivers herself was a director, making her one feature, Rabbit Test, in 1978.

The Kids Are All Right (2010), dir. Lisa Cholodenko – If the “Trailblazing Women” program included LGBT directors and stories, the dramedy The Kids Are All Right would be at the top of the list for me. Directed by openly gay filmmaker Lisa Cholodenko (b. 1964) and telling the story of a lesbian couple (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) whose teenage children (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) find and meet their sperm-donor father (Mark Ruffalo), leading to trouble for all of the characters, the film probably wouldn’t be played on the channel due to all of the sexual content (TCM tends to shy away from too much of that). Even so, LGBT topics form an important canon in film history and there are so many women filmmakers who have tackled those issues, including Donna Deitch (Desert Hearts), Cheryl Dunye (The Watermelon Woman), Nisha Ganatra (Chutney Popcorn), Maryam Keshavarz (Circumstance), Maria Maggenti (The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love), Deepa Mehta (Fire), Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry), Mariana Rondón (Bad Hair), Céline Sciamma (Tomboy) and Alice Wu (Saving Face).

The Babadook (2014), dir. Jennifer Kent – My favorite horror film of the last few years (it certainly has fans; The Exorcist director William Friedkin wrote on Twitter that “I’ve never seen a more terrifying film than The Babadook. It will scare the hell out of you as it did me.”) and a chilling look at a woman’s unraveling mind, The Babadook marks Australian actress Jennifer Kent’s directorial debut and provides an outstanding platform for Essie Davis, a longtime character actress who is now better known in the US thanks to her gutsy lead performance. The nightmarish dread of an unseen enemy casts a shadow (literally!) over Davis’s house, causing her psychological and physical torment and threatening the safety of her and her young son. It’s a daring, unforgettable film, challenging the viewers’ concepts of what it means to be a woman, a mother and a widow.

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