Female Oscar Coasters

February 28, 2012

Over two years ago, I wrote these words about a female directed Oscar contending war film: “The film plays this war as it is—an emotional roller coaster of fear and boredom, action and waiting.” Of course, that film was Hurt Locker which would go on to be a (the) big (only) best director Oscar win for a powerful female flick. But I could just as easily so begin a discussion of this year’s female helmed nominee for Best Foreign Picture, Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness, about another war, the Second World one this time. While I do sometimes pen here about both Holocaust and anti-war cinema, due to reasons both familial and political, neither of those themes will be my concern, but rather I will focus instead on this question of Sturm und Drang,  gender and prizes. Can women only win Oscars when they make in a male mode?

For, In Darkness is also first and foremost an unyielding, visceral, ride of a flick that’s macho in form and content: about big issues, History, while also being kinetic, energetic, pulse-popping. Now, what was remarkable about Hurt Locker was how Bigelow not only was all kinesis all the time but also so boy-like in how she stripped emotion from her spastic journey: no melos in her drama.

But Holland’s ride, while also fast and furious, necessarily links this unabating almost intolerable energy to unceasing and deep feeling. Which, of course means that watching this picture is painful: an emotional explosion, a perceptual paroxysm, a sentimental binge and purge. Like a good woman’s film, this emotion occurs in a (very, very, very) contained domicile: a gruesome, enclosed, rat-infested, stinky sewer that a small group of Polish Jews are forced to make into home for over a year. Unlike your typical weepie, however, the suffering is always linked to the home and the (Nazi) state, the personal and the political. And furthermore, keeping her eyes on this particular prize, Holland doesn’t turn the movie into a celebration of her own liberations from the (self-imposed) confinements on her craft. For, also quite recently I wrote this about men shooting films in caves: “both Cave of Forgotten Dreams and 127 Hours use the strictures of extreme, if confined filmmaking (think Dogme 95) as both metaphor and inspiration for the macho and masochistic, exposing a ritual set of beliefs that underline much of filmmaking culture (think Fitzcaraldo or Apocalypse Now): it is this film that will either bring out the man in me, or kill me, or both. As if filmmaking itself is war or torture; as if shooting in caves is mountain climbing or spelunking itself.”

While I may have gotten too mixed up in all my cinematic maneuverings, my point remains pretty simple. It’s exciting and curious to see female directors work so well within forms that we have typically understood as male, while it is always critical to understand how they’ll make them over just the same.

It’s like reality TV for famous filmmakers: wacky games with ridiculous rules bring out the real man. In this episode, our intrepid directors don’t have to eat maggots but they do have to shoot almost an entire feature film within the tight, murky confines of a cave. There’s no vistas in reach, the set is all set, the actors can’t do much, and it’s often really dark. Then, the French Ministry of Culture ups the ante for German master, Wener Herzog: consumer camera, four man crew who can only walk on small metal pathways, and very very tight shooting schedule. Meanwhile, Danny Boyle seems to unleash all of Hollywood’s glitz (and even one of its rising stars) into the tight crevice that is his canvas. Despite these differences, both Cave of Forgotten Dreams and 127 Hours use the strictures of extreme, if confined filmmaking (think Dogme 95) as both metaphor and inspiration for the macho and masochistic, exposing a ritual set of beliefs that underline much of filmmaking culture (think Fitzcaraldo or Apocalypse Now): it is this film that will either bring out the man in me, or kill me, or both. As if filmmaking itself is war or torture; as if shooting in caves is mountain climbing or spelunking itself.

Representation becomes the thing and the action–especially as suffered and achieved through the hands of a worthy man. More on this soon.

In an earlier post I consider how Boyle’s strenuous and splendid effort becomes a postmodern ode to duration via acceleration, music, mise en scene and narration. Meanwhile, Herzog’s gauntlet propels him to seek movement in stasis. Even as the wall paintings have been entirely still for 32,000 years (with a small addition occurring at a 5,000 year interval) Peter Zeitlinger’s camera always moves, as do his hand-held light sources. And thus Herzog suggests that the paintings not only anticipate cinema, they already are and always were. His inner caveman shares and anticipates the urge to document space in time: and this he suggests is what makes us knowing men, or homo sapiens.

There’s an amazing moment in Caves where an honored French art historian’s junior colleague attempts to correct her esteemed Professor, suggesting that we can not know whether the painter of the Chauvet Cave was male or female. Madame disdainfully disregards her student, and continues to discuss the profundity of “his handprint’s signature crooked finger.” The explicit signatures of both (post)modern men mark their efforts in this definitively human project. All the men admirably succeed in their quest: to use the confines of a cave as allegory for understanding cinema as human history and existence. But the small place left for women in the current representations of this cosmology leaves me questioning the perception of our role in contemporary tellings of technology, narrative, nature and art especially because primitive man put the Venus at the very center of theirs.

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