Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Rethinking the American Canon

Maya Deren in "Meshes of the Afternoon"

Sometime last year, I finally started tagging posts in which I write about films by women. There is well-documented bias in the film industry marginalizing women filmmakers and my thinking is that part of the way to counteract this is to actively seek out and write about films by women. My friend, Willow, over at the excellent Curtsies and Hand Grenades is doing exactly this right now and while I'm not going to go to the same lengths, I AM going to be consciously watching more films by women this year and beyond. (Dudes: don't worry. Your dominance of the film industry means that I'll write about plenty of the dude films you like, too. Hell, I probably can't avoid them).

This is on my mind this morning because my friend, Renee, is enrolled in an Introduction to American Film class this semester and we had a long talk about the syllabus last night. It's just about the most dudetastic thing I've ever seen. The films on the list:

The Birth of A Nation
City Lights
Duck Soup
Citizen Kane
Touch of Evil
Sunset Boulevard
Some Like It Hot
Bonnie and Clyde
Apocalypse Now
No Country for Old Men

I'm not going to argue the greatness and importance of some of these films (I'll save my thoughts on the not-greatness of The Birth of a Nation for another time, I guess), but I am appalled that the most feminine-skewed film on this list is Some Like it Hot, which presents two equally absurd constructions of femininity in the drag personae of Curtis and Lemmon and in Marylin Monroe herself.  I suppose, if I were really scraping, I could appropriate Bonnie and Clyde as Dede Allen's masterpiece, but the auteurists would probably shit a brick if I seized it away from Arthur Penn. Moreover, there's a strong sense in this ordering of the canon that American Cinema--particularly since the 1970s--is primarily concerned with regeneration through violence. This all skews the narrative of American film away from women as a whole, even though women's films and women's concerns were central to a large chunk of films from the classic period through the 1950s at least.

This all dovetails with a conversation I had with two of my other friends last year in which they suggested I go back to school to get a masters in film and start to teach. This is attractive until you realize that no one who works as an adjunct professor makes any money, so this prospect isn't as appealing as it might be. That hasn't stopped me from fantasizing about the Introduction to American Film class that I would like to teach, which I'm going to leave here in public with notable films by women in bold:

Week 1: American Poetics
Sunrise (Murnau)
All Quiet on the Western Front (Milestone)
How Green Was My Valley (Ford)

Week 2: The Silent Clowns
Girl Shy (Newmeyer, Taylor, and Lloyd)
Sherlock, Jr. (Keaton)
City Lights (Chaplin)

Week 3: Women in the Classic Era
Female (Wellman et al)
Jezebel (Wyler)
The Women (Cukor)

Week 4: American Genre
Frankenstein (Whale)
Scarface (Hawks)
Stagecoach (Ford)

Week 5: The American Propaganda Machine
Casablanca (Curtiz)
The Battle of Midway (Ford)
Sergeant York (Hawks)

Duck Amuck

Week 6: The American Avant Garde
Meshes of the Afternoon (Deren)
Duck Amuck (Jones)
The Hole (Hubley and Hubley)
The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes (Brakhage)
Citizen Kane (Welles)

Week 7: Film Noir
Out of the Past (Tourneur)
The Reckless Moment (Ophuls)
Kiss Me Deadly (Aldrich)
The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (Clampett)

Week 8: Conformity and its Discontents
The Outrage (Lupino)
All that Heaven Allows (Sirk)
The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Siegel)

Week 9: The American New Wave in the 1960s
The Graduate (Nichols)
Bonnie and Clyde (Penn)
A New Leaf (May)

Week 10: The Film Brats
The Conversation (Coppola)
Jaws (Spielberg)
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (Scorsese)

Week 11: Independent film in the 1970s
A Woman Under the Influence (Cassavettes)
Harlan County USA (Kopple)
Killer of Sheep (Burnett)

Week 12: The Rise of the Blockbuster
The Terminator (Cameron)
Die Hard (McTiernan)
Batman (Burton)

Week 13: American Independent film in the 80s and 90s
She's Gotta Have It (Lee)
Sex, Lies and Videotape (Soderbergh)
Daughters of the Dust (Dash)

Week 14: American Queer Cinema
Bound (Wachowski and Wachowski)
Mysterious Skin (Araki)
Velvet Goldmine (Haynes)

Week 15: The Fall of the American Empire
American Psycho (Harron)
The Hurt Locker (Bigelow)
CitizenFour (Poitras)

Week 16: No End Title
Winter's Bone (Granik)
Her (Jonze)

Of course, this is a ridiculous course. Too many films. Too many strings to untangle. Too many scents to follow. But that's cinema for you. It's protean and slippery. In any event, It's a fun fantasy. Maybe one day I'll teach this class. Maybe.

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Anonymous said...

Fun syllabus. Marya Gates over at Cinema Fanatic is only watching films made by women through 2015 and is blogging her experience: http://cinema-fanatic.com/

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Oooh! Thanks for the tip!

Anonymous said...

The male-centricity of creative histories (literature, visual art, music, film, etc) is still very much entrenched, isn't it? I'm a silent film person and sometimes feel like some of the people teaching these kind of courses would be surprised to learn just how many women were working in the film industry in the silent era.

Anyway, I am not really up on the American Canon, but this looks like a really solid programme!