AWFJ Women On Film – The Week in Women, May 29, 2009 – MaryAnn Johanson

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Put a woman in charge of film school, but make sure the females are degraded on film. It’s all about balance, you see…

GIRL MAKES GOOD. The Los Angeles Times had some exciting news this week for feminist watchers of Hollywood:

Teri Schwartz, a longtime producer whose film credits include Sister Act, Beaches and Joe Versus the Volcano, was named dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, said UCLA officials Friday.

A Los Angeles native and UCLA alumna, Schwartz has served as the first dean of the School of Film and Television at Loyola Marymount University in Westchester since 2003. Her UCLA appointment begins July 1 and must still be approved by the UC regents.

Schwartz, who began her film career as a producer in the 1970s, replaces Robert Rosen, who has been UCLA’s dean for nearly 13 years.

We can only hope that a woman in charge of one of the country’s most important film schools will change the tenor of the industry toward women filmmakers.

NO WE CANNES’T. Peter Howell at TheStar.com notices a disturbing trend among the movies at Cannes this year:

Lars von Trier’s sex horror film Antichrist won an “anti-prize” at the closing of the Cannes Film Festival last weekend for being “the most misogynistic movie” at the fest.

Right sentiment, wrong movie. Despite its scenes of graphic mutilation, including one where star Charlotte Gainsbourg lops off her clitoris with a pair of rusty scissors, Antichrist was actually less hostile to women than many other high-profile pictures at Cannes.

The fact is that misogyny – hatred of women – was insidious in the official selection at Cannes this year, both in the competition and programs like Un Certain Regard. It was rare to find a movie where the central female wasn’t playing a whore, a nut case, a victim or all three, most often as the result of male treachery. This included Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, the winner of this year’s Palme d’Or.

And then he goes on to detail the appalling depictions of violence against women on display at Cannes. And he wonders at what it means:

It’s not unusual to have films like this at festivals, but it was unusual to have so many of them competing for the Palme. This isn’t the fault of the Cannes selectors, who choose films by directorial reputation more than by subject matter. But it does suggest that many prominent filmmakers have slipped into a moral abyss where the debasement of women isn’t a concern, or worse, is deliberately used to titillate critics and festival programmers, who are mostly male.

When pressed to explain themselves, filmmakers typically claim to be responding to mystical forces and not at all to audience sensibilities.

Blah blah blah from men who appear to fail to understand what the hell they’re talking about, such as this, from Lars Von Trier:

“I don’t think women or their sexuality is evil, but it is frightening … I provoke myself, too, you know. My mother was a dyed-in-the-wool women’s libber. I’m pretty open about gender equality. I just don’t think it’ll ever really happen.”

Little boys are frightened of women. No one who believes himself to be a man should be.

But then Howell slips into that bizarre he-just-doesn’t-get-it realm, as if he lived in a world without sex, without sexual violance, and without women:

The women on the female-dominated Cannes jury didn’t have a problem, either. For the first time at Cannes, there were more women than men on the Palme panel, five females to four males. Yet they didn’t flinch from honouring films that in many cases presented women in ignoble circumstances.

Which suggests that the situation isn’t likely to change anytime soon. On the contrary, such extreme behaviour is more likely to seep into the mainstream.

Cultural standards this year alone have shifted noticeably. The mainstream action blockbuster Watchmen had a fully nude male character and the romantic comedy Away We Go, coming soon to a multiplex near you, opens with a scene of cunnilingus that leaves little to the imagination.

How on earth anyone with half a brain could equate nonsexual male nudity — as in Watchmen — with degrading violence against women is a mystery. How on earth anyone with half a brain could equate loving lovemaking between a deeply committed couple, and occurring completely out of sight — as in Away We Go — with degrading violence against women is a mystery.

Until the men who make movies, and the men who write about them, learn how to distinguish the sexual from the nonsexual, and the tender and consensual from the brutal and forced, there is indeed little hope that anything will change.

OPENING THIS WEEK. What, there couldn’t be one female character in Disney/Pixar’s Up? Oh, sure, there’s Ellie, the deceased spouse of our unlikely hero, 78-year-old Carl Fredricksen, but she’s not so much a character as she is a motivation: her spirit is what sends Carl on his journey by balloon-lofted house. A journey on which he is accompanied by an 8-year-old boy, and on which he encounters another powerful personage who is male, and even acquires a dog. And even the dog is male. What the hell?

At least we do have Alison Lohman’s deceptively mild-mannered bank loan officer in Drag Me to Hell, the latest from cult-favorite director Sam Raimi. What’s even better is that her story involves nothing that is a usual excuse for “allowing” a story to be about a woman: She’s not pregnant or trying to get pregnant. She’s not a mother. She’s not a wife or trying to become a wife. And what may be the most subversive aspect of Hell: She’s not a victim, at least not in the traditional sense that women are cast as cinematic victims. In fact, the movie overtly, if slyly, asks whether she calls her own doom upon herself… and not in that typically misogynistic way that decides that “she was asking for it”…

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MaryAnn Johanson

MaryAnn Johanson is a freelance writer on film, TV, DVD, and pop culture from New York City and now based in London. She is the webmaster and sole critic at FlickFilosopher.com, which debuted in 1997 and is now one of the most popular, most respected, and longest-running movie-related sites on the Internet. Her film reviews also appear in a variety of alternative-weekly newspapers across the U.S. Johanson is one of only a few film critics who is a member of The International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences (the Webby organization), an invitation-only, 500-member body of leading Web experts, business figures, luminaries, visionaries and creative celebrities. She is also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. She has appeared as a cultural commentator on BBC Radio, LBC-London, and on local radio programs across North America, and she served as a judge at the first Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Film Festival at the 2003 I-Con, the largest SF convention on the East Coast. She is the author of The Totally Geeky Guide to The Princess Bride, and is an award-winning screenwriter. Read Johanson's recent articles below. For her Women On Film archive, type "MaryAnn Johanson" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).