A recent film review by Richard Brody in the New Yorker begins with the line, “[t]he litany of female independent filmmakers who, after brilliant debuts, were unable to sustain careers includes Juleen Compton…”
Compton’s work is pretty brilliant, and I’m glad to see the “B-word” applied to the work of women. However, Brody’s assumption that we can’t sustain productive trajectories nearly gave me a rage stroke. When men produce just a few great films, we call them geniuses – even when the oeuvre is uneven at best (looking at you, Terrence Malick). We write about the deliberate quality of their process. We might lament the fact that they never gave us a larger body of work, and we might inquire about what went wrong in their lives to take them away from their creative pursuits. Given the male achievement gap in education, it would probably be safe to see most one-time producers as failure-to-launch types. But I have yet to read an account of how men, as a group, just can’t get it together enough to maintain their creative careers.
It is fair to ask why so many very good women filmmakers don’t go on to long creative careers – but the answer there almost certainly lies in the sexism, racism, and other structural difficulties that they face. The ability to take time off from life to make things is a luxury for most of the world, and it is all but unattainable when access to funding, press, and distribution is behind doors barred to all but coded-as-male auteurs.
Brody is also just plain wrong about Juleen Compton, who was hardly a flash in the pan. She created not one but two well-regarded films. In fact, THE NEW YORKER REVIEW WAS BLOODY SUPPOSED TO BE ABOUT THEM, BECAUSE METROGRAPH WAS SCREENING THEM, MORE THAN FIFTY YEARS AFTER THEIR RELEASE! She also had a lengthy career in New York theater, first as an actress, and then as a director and company head. I simply don’t see how forty years of work led Brody to his “failure to sustain” thesis.
I’ll leave Brody’s misuse of the word “litany” and his histrionic writing for another day, but his lazy interpretation of Compton’s 1966 The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean is further evidence of his inability to take women’s creative work seriously. He writes about Norma Jean as a girlfriend, an innocent clairvoyant, a naïve pawn, reducing a complex narrative into dull stereotypes about women’s intuition and gullibility. He misses entirely the critiques of capitalism, gender roles, and regimes of knowledge that are embedded in the film, and why that might appeal to contemporary audiences. This is barely a review. I am not sure he’s even seen the film.
When Pauline Kael was the resident film critic, the New Yorker of old gave us both lucid writing and intelligent analysis. Richard Brody, unfortunately, seems unable to live up to his predecessor. His reviews vacillate between arch indifference and fanboy excitement, all of them too-cool-for-school aged beatnik fantasies of Writing For An Important Magazine. In twenty years, someone might judge his inability to sustain a writing career. I doubt, though, that they’ll attribute that failure to his sex.
Photo © Kenneth Lu