This past weekend saw the release of Captain Marvel, but Brie Larson isn’t the only superwoman of American cinema you can see on Chicago screens this week. Tomorrow at 7:30 PM at Northeastern Illinois University the Chicago Film Society will screen the 1932 drama Christopher Strong, which was directed by Dorothy Arzner, one of the few women to direct Hollywood movies between the 1920s and the 1970s. And at Chicago Filmmakers at 7 PM on Saturday, local filmmaker and educator Shayna Connelly will present an introduction to pioneering women filmmakers, incorporating clips by such key U.S. (or U.S.-based) artists as Alice Guy Blaché, Lois Weber, Maya Deren, Mary Ellen Bute, Marie Menken, Shirley Clarke, and the recently departed Carolee Schneemann.
That list of names is by no means exhaustive, as one could fashion a rich and compelling history of American cinema as framed through the contributions of female artists. In addition to the filmmakers listed above, one could mention directors Marion E. Wong, Ida Lupino, Joyce Wieland (who was Canadian-born but made some of her most important work in New York), Barbara Hammer, and Elaine May; such screenwriters as Frederica Sagor, Anita Loos, Frances Marion, and Leigh Brackett; and editors like Margaret Booth and Barbara McLean. The capsule reviews assembled below cover five films by instrumental women directors.
Shoes A forgotten master of the silent era, writer-director Lois Weber was once ranked alongside D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. De Mille, but her dramas were radically different from theirs, intimate in scale and focused on progressive social issues. Shoes (1916), inspired by Jane Addams’s study of urban red-light districts, tells the story of an impoverished shop clerk (Mary MacLaren) so desperate for a new pair of shoes that she sells her body to a customer who’s been pursuing her. The young woman’s drab home life, dominated by her lazy, unemployed father, is authentically staged, and Weber—who, like Griffith, knew how to pull viewers deep inside a character’s emotional vortex—reveals how the chronic envy of these young shopworkers, selling merchandise they can’t afford themselves, sucks them into a rapacious economy. —J.R. Jones 2017
Outrage This 1950 film by Ida Lupino may not be stylistically original or completely successful, but it does treat the subject of rape with real sensitivity, especially for its era. Ann Walton (Mala Powers) is a young bookkeeper whose life falls apart after she is raped, and her reactions—refusing to talk about the rape, rejecting her fiance, and ultimately fleeing her hometown—seem believable, in part because of the various ways Lupino presents the woman’s body. The rape itself is omitted, but Walton’s helplessness and terror are palpable as she tries to escape her pursuer in a barren industrial landscape, dwarfed by parked trucks and lifeless buildings. Lupino saves the intense close-ups for men, as when Walton’s memory of the attack is triggered by another man coming on to her, but she avoids pigeonholing Walton as a victim. Before the rape, the woman seems as independent as her fiance, and afterward, when a minister shows her a favorite landscape, her face brightens; Lupino shows Walton’s appreciation of nature and hints at her recovery. —Fred Camper
Terminal Island A lurid exploitation subject turned into a crafty feminist allegory (1973) by Stephanie Rothman. The setting is a tiny island where the state of California has decided to send all prisoners convicted of first-degree murder to fend for themselves; the more brutal elements quickly erect a fascist dictatorship, while the women they’ve enslaved plot an escape to join the utopian rebels hiding in the hills. It’s difficult now to believe there was a time when such progressive politics could be expressed in a drive-in movie, but yes, Virginia, there was an early 70s. With Phyllis Elizabeth Davis, Don Marshall, Barbara Leigh, Sean Kenney, and (way down in the cast) the future stars of TV’s neocon series Magnum P.I.—Tom Selleck and Roger Mosley. 88 min. —Dave Kehr 1985
Losing Ground This low-budget 1982 drama was one of the first features directed by an African-American woman, but it’s much more than a historical footnote. Formally and intellectually ambitious, it moves daringly between Bergmaneseque psychodrama and probing conversations on philosophy, race, and religion. A black philosophy professor at a New York college (Seret Scott), working on a paper about “ecstatic experience,” starts to reevaluate her life and realizes that for years she’s lived without passion. Writer-director Kathleen Collins charts the character’s emotional breakdown subtly and perceptively, never drawing easy conclusions about her life. Bill Gunn gives a powerful performance as the woman’s husband, an arrogant abstract painter; his unpredictable, deeply sympathetic work recalls such John Cassavetes films as Faces and A Woman Under the Influence and makes for a compelling frisson with the cerebral script. With Billie Allen and Duane Jones. —Ben Sachs 2015
In the Mirror of Maya Deren Maya Deren (1917-’61) did more than anyone else to create the American experimental film as we know it, and this 2002 German documentary (in English) by Martina Kudlacek is the best portrait of an experimental filmmaker that I know. Kudlacek steeps us in Deren’s artistic and bohemian milieu (basically Greenwich Village in the 40s and 50s, though she made her first film in Los Angeles and later spent much time in Haiti), and because Deren did such a good job of recording and documenting her own activities, the film is able to provide a detailed sense of what she was like as both a person and an artist. Among the eloquent friends and associates interviewed are Jonas Mekas, Katherine Dunham, Stan Brakhage, Amos and Marcia Vogel, Graeme Ferguson, Alexander Hammid (her second husband and sometime collaborator), Judith Malina, Miriam Arsham, Rita Christiani, Teiji Ito, and Chao-li Chi. 104 min.
—Jonathan Rosenbaum 2003 v