Monday, January 27, 2020

Hidden Histories: The Story of Women Film Editors

I've written an essay for Criterion on women film editors. It was inspired by Su Friedrich's website, Edited By, a wonderful, invaluable labor of love devoted to them. Here is an excerpt from the essay.

In his book Women Film Editors: Unseen Artists of the American Cinema, David Meuel points out that film editing work in the silent era was not only tedious (given the need to sift through large quantities of filmed footage), it was also low-paying. Because “cutting” was considered menial and monotonous work similar to knitting and sewing, it became common for young women with little or no professional training to be hired as cutters. When male figures such as D. W. Griffith began to emphasize the editing function of cinema through devices like cross-cutting, the perception of editing underwent a transformation. No longer simply a cutter: the “editor” was born.

At the same time as editing acquired prestige in the 1920s, studios expanded in size and movies became big business. With men universally installed at the helm of big studios, women were “systemically purged” (in Meuel’s words) from producing, directing, and editing positions in Hollywood. Despite this calamitous turn of events, editing proved slightly more hospitable for women than producing or directing, and a modest core of women editors survived this transition [...]

Still, editors have been under-researched by film historians, primarily because of the mighty influence of auteurism, which has profoundly shaped the study of Hollywood in the last half-century. By centering directors, film history has tended to marginalize other creative artists in Hollywood, including editors. The scholar J. E. Smyth, who has produced an indispensable body of work on women in Hollywood over the last decade, singles out a male editor, Walter Murch, as the exception, given an “auteur glow” thanks to praise from directors such as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. An instructive contrast might be made with a woman editor such as Schoonmaker, who has been held up as a model collaborator (rather than as an auteur figure) by Scorsese, or Sally Menke, who edited all of Quentin Tarantino’s films from Reservoir Dogs (1992) up to Inglourious Basterds (2009). Menke was hired by Tarantino to edit Reservoir Dogs because (as he once explained in an interview) he wanted a woman who would “nurture” both him and his movie, rather than “shove their agenda or win their battles with me.” It is a telling statement that underscores both the gender-normative views that continue to prevail in Hollywood and the competitive masculinism that underpins the mythology of the auteur.

pic: Anne Bauchens, who had a four-decade working partnership with Cecil B. De Mille, and was the first woman editor to win an Oscar.

Thursday, January 09, 2020

TIFF 2019: "One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk"

At a time in film culture when auteurism continues to be dominant, and work by Indigenous filmmakers continues to be marginalized (not a single Indigenous film from anywhere in the world on the Sight & Sound Top 50 films of 2019 list), we desperately need alternative ways of watching, writing, and discussing this cinema in order to draw out its richness, complexity and difference.

One of the clear highlights of my film year has been the Canadian drama One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk, from arts and media collective Isuma. Directed by Inuk filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk, it was co-written by him with Norman Cohn. Kunuk and Cohn were two of the co-founders of Isuma, Canada's first Inuit independent production company, in 1990. Isuma’s mission, from the start, was to produce independent community-based work—first films and TV, and then Internet media. Although the general impulse of reviews so far has been to approach this new film through an auteurist lens—Kunuk having directed a small but distinguished body of feature film work including the widely celebrated Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner, 2001)—it might be even more productive, in my view, to examine it in the context of Isuma’s mission and prior productions.

The film tells the story of one bright spring day in 1961 that begins with Noah (Apayata Kotierk) rising in his igloo, sipping a mug of hot tea, and setting out with his band and their dog team on a hunting trip. Along the way, they make a stop for rest, and encounter a white man named “Boss”—the Inuit call him Isumataq, meaning “he who thinks for us”—who is accompanied by a Inuk youth who will serve as translator between Noah and Boss. During their conversation, the Boss (played by Kim Bodnia, the Danish actor best known for his role as Konstantin in the TV series Killing Eve) tries to persuade Noah to relocate his family from their ancestral homeland in Kapuivik, Baffin Island, Canada’s northernmost territory. Boss wants them to move into a settlement where they will be provided with a house, a school for their children, and a family allowance. Noah refuses, repeatedly. The audience, by the end, feels a mixture of warmth—for Noah’s resolve—and sadness—because we all know how settler-colonial history turned out.

At the heart of the film lies the extended conversation between the two men, mediated by the young translator. As we watch and listen, a strange and wonderful dynamic appears: the words of both men are not rendered to each other smoothly and faithfully, but instead are frequently mistranslated, peppered with pauses, made bumpy by awkwardness. Boss’ words are often direct, unrelenting, repetitive: he only cares about one thing: moving Noah and his family. But the translator bends and softens the white man’s words, likely not wanting to offend and insult the elder Noah. The sequence is both funny and poignant.

There exists one other explanation for the mistranslations: that the translator is a young man, and does not have the same facility with the Inuktitut language as his elders do. This point speaks to intergenerational loss. As time has passed, and Indigenous people such as the Inuit have been dispossessed, displaced, and disenfranchised, their cultural heritage and legacy, which includes their languages, have suffered seriously from lack of preservation. Younger generations have acutely felt this severing of links to cultural practices of previous generations.

This is a theme that strikes at the core of Isuma’s mission, which has for three decades been explicitly one of cultural preservation and transmission. The collective has its own Internet broadcasting channel, and an online library of nearly 8000 media works, in 80 languages. While the new film, I’m sure, is capable of supporting a fruitful auteurist reading with Zacharias Kunuk at its center, what interests me more is the prospect of imagining a map of Isuma’s productions—and identifying the place(s) that One Day in the Life might occupy withing the vastness of that map.

TIFF 2019: "The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open"

I've seen no better new film this year than the Canadian drama The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open, directed by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn. Set and shot in the neighborhood of East Vancouver, it follows in near real time a chance encounter between two women on a rainy afternoon. Rosie (Violet Nelson), barefoot and bruised, is fleeing an abusive boyfriend when she is noticed on the street by Áila (co-director Tailfeathers), who offers her refuge. Once in Áila's apartment, they wait for Rosie's clothes to dry; Áila then accompanies her to a safe house. The film's ending (which I will not spoil) is poignant and powerful.

The deep immersiveness of The Body Remembers is partly a result of the manner in which it was shot and edited. After an initial sequence that introduces the two protagonists, the film unfolds as a continuous series of 16 mm takes that were "stitched together." This feat of camerawork notwithstanding, the film's style never feels spectacularized or showy. Instead, this formal choice adds to the pressure and weight of everyday reality which the audience cannot shrink from or disavow.

We well know how the history of cinema has time and again subordinated and short-changed women's experiences at the expense of men's stories. This is an injustice that is only multiplied in the case of Indigenous women. Even on that score alone, The Body Remembers is an invaluable work because its protagonists (and players) are both First Nations women. (Nelson is a member of the Kwakwaka'wakw Nation, while Tailfeathers is of Blackfoot and Sami descent.) The film's deeper impact, however, derives from the ways in which it traces the differences between the two women. Rosie, in her late teens, is poor, dark-skinned, and until recently was part of the foster care system. Áila, by contrast, is in her thirties, economically comfortable, and light-skinned. The film observes and analyzes, with patience and subtlety throughout, the enduring tension between their social positions, and the way this disparity structures the lives, actions, and choices of the two women.

While The Body Remembers is easily available on streaming (at least here in North America, at Netflix), it's deeply disappointing to note that it makes no appearance on the Sight & Sound Top 50 films of 2019. I'm hoping that it will gather word of mouth in 2020, and receive the widespread attention and admiration that it deserves. Let me recommend, on a closing note, So Mayer's brilliant essay on the film, "Just a Little Green," at Literal Magazine.