Friday 15th December 2017,
Televisual

Solitary Woman? Notes on Gender and Independent Film

Woody Allen’s Interiors (1978)

Woody Allen, it seems, does not care if women hate him. He’s now making headlines doing what many people in Hollywood have done: defend Roman Polanski. As the ever-sharp Chelsea Handler exclaimed on her show, Woody Allen’s last person Polanski wants defending him: “he should be in jail!” Handler said of Allen. Yes, leaving your wife to marry your daughter will not win you fans among women.

What’s my point? It’s actually a shame, because people, especially my age, forget Woody Allen was once one of the few independent film auteurs to give women great roles, to make movies about women.

It’s something we desperately need right now.

If you’re one of the tens of thousands (÷ thousands) of people who read this blog, you know I have a preoccupation with how gender and the film industries intersect. It’s led me to defend Nancy Meyerspan Elegy, praise Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino and question Judd Apatow. Clearly, I’m somewhat consistent on the matter. I’m also on the record as being a huge Woody Allen fan, so I’m biased, on a number of fronts. But I’m not alone in noticing how few films we get, independent or otherwise, about women.

SOLITARY MEN

A few days I sauntered over to the Angelika here in New York for a spontaneous movie visit, and I chose Solitary Man, purely based on the clip I saw on The View that morning (congrats to the film’s marketing team! Well-played). Before entering the theater I couldn’t help but notice the selection of films I had to choose from: Solitary Man, Harry Brown, GreenbergCity Island and The Secret in Their Eyes. Notice something? It’s not particularly noticeable or remarkable, since it happens all the time. Three out of five (really, four, but I won’t count Secret since I’m making an argument about American cinema), are explicitly about lone men working through existential and personal crises.

Ah, lonely men, the perennial favorite of cinema. Am I alone in finding this not the least bit interesting?

This isn’t a knock on the quality of the films. For what it’s worth, I rather enjoyed Solitary Man. It was more than self-reflexive about how its protagonist, Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas), is a jerk and screw-up. The film’s quite well-written, humorous, somber and well-composed. I’m sure Harry Brown is, too, wonderful; Michael Caine is at his best when he’s allowed to be ruthless. I can’t bring myself to see Greenberg, so I can’t remark on its quality, but needless to say it’s sparked a discussion on the predominance of loser-men in mediaGreenberg also provided a catalyst for a thoughtful piece about Gen X’s midlife crisis by Tony Scott, which he aptly points out is largely a male one (case in point: Grown Ups). The female Greenbergs are the power-execs of The Proposal and giddy gals of Sex and the City. [I shouldn’t need to mention that, for the most part, these men are mostly white; I guess 35 years of stagnant growth in assets means you don’t have time for existentialism. Another post, another day].

I couldn’t help but thinking after leaving Solitary Man: “grow up!” The end of the film — SPOILER ALERT! — has Ben Kalmen caught in a choice between his childish ways — chasing women 40 years his junior — and accepting his age, mortality and responsibility — choosing his ex-wife, played by Susan Sarandon. It’s a classic art-house “ambiguous” ending. But within the narrative of the film, there really isn’t a choice. His former self was on a death path, ignoring his heart problems and emotionally divesting himself from nearly everyone in his life. His only choice was to grow up. Ben’s crisis over his own mortality is over, and yet the film gives us an illusion it can persist. What gives? The lone man never dies.

WHERE’S WOODY?

Back to Woody Allen. Perhaps because so many of his films are about him — either with him as star or with sporadically convincing doppelgangers — Allen often gets pegged as a scion of the trend above. Arguably every film he’s ever made includes some form of crisis over the meaning of existence, and the ones people cite — from Annie Hall to Deconstructing Harry, Manhattan to Sweet and Lowdown — are about men and/or Woody Allen. Yet my favorite Woody films — he makes a film a year; I’ve seen all but a few — are marked by their strong woman characters. And he writes them often.

Most importantly, these films have narratives that place women at their center. This, for me, is a crucial distinction. Solitary Man‘s Ben Kalmen is surrounded by admirable women and strong female actresses, but the story is about him. Spurred in part by his muse in Mia Farrow, Allen’s films in the 1980s and early 1990s brought a slew of narratives about women. Interiors kicked it off in the late 1970s, then the eighties brought Purple Rose of Cairo (Mia Farrow), Hannah and Her Sisters (Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest), September (Mia Farrow) and Another Woman (Gena Rowlands); followed by a spurt in the early 1990s with Alice (Mia Farrow), Shadows and Fog (Mia Farrow) and Husbands and Wives (Mia Farrow, Judy Davis).

This more artistically versatile time also marked the height of Allen’s creative and cultural power. After making hit after hit in the 1970s, Allen continued to make solid, small films in 1980s — $300 million in domestic box office revenue evenly split between the two decades. Hannah and Her Sisters remains his highest grossing film (not adjusted for inflation!!). By 1997, Allen had married Soon-Yi, and I guess something changed. 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona is really the only standout for his female protagonists, though you can make semi-convincing arguments about Melinda and Melinda and Scoop. The 1990s and 2000s saw Allen half as successful (once again, not adjusted for inflation).

In many ways, Allen has always been a anomaly, for reasons to be explained. I simply want to suggest how Allen’s focus on small films (he’s never made a film to gross over $50 million) has allowed him some independence. With this independence, he’s been able to tell rare stories. Gena Rowlands’ character in Another Woman is an intellectual grappling with loneliness, a life mostly lived in the past and an ex-husband who has moved on. Mia Farrow’s Cecilia in The Purple Rose of Cairo is a bored wife in need of fantasy. The young, post-1970s independent women of Interiors are trying to find their identities (as professionals and partners) as their own mother, a woman in many ways dealing with a life lived traditionally (wife and motherhood first), heads into a downward spiral. Husbands and Wives and Hannah and Her Sisters take the familiar indie script — like Solitary Man, managing complicated romances — and tell it from the woman’s perspective.

Allen has his descendants in the independent film world. Filmmakers like Joe Swanberg — with his muse Greta Gerwig — and Andrew Bujalski have made a bunch of films about young women finding meaning in life. But for every Hannah Takes the Stairs, you have a host of independent films pushing women off to the side, despite the appearance of urbanity: like (500) Days of Summer (which I liked), which starts with the slur “bitch” and goes on to completely ignore the girl’s motivations and focus instead on the wronged, emotionally torn boy.

WHY MEN?

Where are these stories today? Of course, they do appear, mostly predictably and profitably in frothy romantic comedies — Sex and the City, The Proposal, It’s Complicated, The Back-Up Plan (for me, by the way, “frothy” is not pejorative). From time to time they spring up in big films, most surprisingly in Alice in Wonderland, probably the most feminist mass-market blockbuster I’ve seen in years. Alice goes from a fussily dressed fiancee, to donning armor and winning wars, to breaking off her marriage and getting a career. It’s almost too feminist.

But these films are the minority. The vast majority of mainstream and independent films focus on men. Once again, this isn’t a knock on quality, merely on representation. Representations aren’t “wrong” or “bad,” they just raise questions. It’s there, and we should probably talk about it.

For mainstream Hollywood, the economics are clear. Men won’t see chick films, but women will see both. (Family films are another conversation). You can’t fight the culture.

I’m unsure if the market for independent films is similar. Certainly reviews matter more in the art-house circuit. Movies like Solitary Man are pitched to critics as artistic investigations to grand questions of life, mortality and the American soul. The question is then, whose souls are we interested in and what kinds of stories are understood to be “deep”? I don’t think there’s a clear answer. Critically speaking, I imagine films like Please Give (Catherine Keener grappling with her own life position) gets equally solid reviews as Greenberg.

Let’s then, look at production. The question is: what scripts get written, funded and directed? I assume the pools of scripts is wide and well-distributed, but the people with the purse-strings are, of course, mostly men, who, understandably, might find stories about 40+ year old men dealing with the meaning of life more interesting than the same story about a woman. We all know, moreover, that directors too are overwhelmingly male, and the same rule applies.

There’s not a huge problem here, except it limits our options of what we can see. I’m not in favor of tearing down the art we have but rather making more kinds of art available. It isn’t a question of denying distribution to the Solitary Men out there but forcing us to think about showcasing more Solitary Women.

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For fun, I’ll almost post this cool video about the Bechdel Test, which, if Solitary Man passes it, it does just barely.


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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

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