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A brief history of film spaces run by women

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Women-run art spaces in Los Angeles

 
While the work in Hollywood of directors including Dorothy Arzner (who made ‘Dance, Girl, Dance’ pictured on the previous page) and Esther Eng has been documented and discussed widely, as has the role of formative female film-makers such as Maya Deren – and before Deren, writer-producer Alla Nazimova – less attention has been paid to the women who made and exhibited films on their own, often for other women.

There’s very little documented about abstract film-maker Flora Mock, for example, who combined animation with live action in the Forties and Fities, and who co-directed one film – the 1959 adaptation of ‘Rumplestilskin’, ‘Tom Tit Tom‘ – with Sam Peckinpah. Another experimental film pioneer working in LA from the Forties onwards is better known: Sara Kathryn Arledge. Arledge created shimmering collages of colour, placing her subjects under glass, like fish in an aquarium or objects frozen inside paperweights, using layers of stage-light gelatins then baking them inside glass slides. While these films may not necessarily be aimed at mainstream audiences, the careful interpolation of live action with images, made using hand-made optical effects, suggests the later use of abstract techniques in more mainstream cinema, such as ‘2001: Space Odyssey’ and David Lynch’s recent work, especially in episode 8 of ‘Twin Peaks; The Return’.

It’s generally true in the formal academic study of cinema that the business side of film exhibition is overlooked, and in particular its interfaces with the avant-garde, and with informal and itinerant screenings. A notable exception is an indispensable work, ‘The Most Typical Avant-garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles‘ by David E James. Rather than try to paraphrase what James says about women film-makers and exhibitors in Los Angeles who were active in this experimental milieu, I’ll quote a chunk out of the book verbatim while acknowledging that it should be more widely available and appreciated (at $30, an ebook edition is long overdue). [The weblinks are mine]:

The possibility of both an independent women’s cinema and a feminist avant-garde had been inaugurated in the city by Maya Deren in the early 1940s […] but such vanguardist projects had largely been extirpated in the extreme reaction of the 1950s, and the characteristic form of the 1960s Los Angeles avant-garde had made trafficking in graphic if not exploitative representations of women’s bodies the banner of countercultural liberation.

When Deren’s own achievements and the anti-industrial initiatives of the kind she had envisaged were renewed nationally and internationally as a collective, social project, in Los Angeles women’s filmmaking experienced a resurgence in the late 1970s, but as scattered, semi-isolated, essentially amateur individual ventures. The women who undertook them supported their personal art by day jobs, sometimes in the academy but more often as technical workers in the industry; themselves Hollywood extras; they were largely incognizant of if not hostile to the theoretical developments that everywhere else characterized the feminist avant-garde. The isolation lived by feminist filmmakers in Los Angeles is all the more remarkable since in the early 1970s the city was at the vanguard of the feminist art movement, and also the home of the first feminist film journal. By the mid-1970s Los Angeles had seen the development of an unprecedented network of feminist art initiatives, most of which coalesced around the extremely important and influential Woman’s Building. The Woman’s Building originated in the Feminist Studio Workshop, originally developed by the artist Judy Chicago in the art department of Fresno State College in spring 1970. Working with a group of fifteen inexperienced students, Chicago emphasized consciousness-raising, the recovery of forgotten women artists, and the creation of an environment where her students could mature as artists outside the masculinist priorities and privileges of the art world. In 1971 the program relocated to Cal Arts, where the painter Miriam Shapiro taught, and since the facilities were not then ready, the group took over a condemned house near downtown Los Angeles, repaired it, and named it Womanhouse. Turning its rooms into works of environmental art, they used it for consciousness-raising and experimental performances. The first substantial feminist art exhibit in the country, Womanhouse was opened to the public for a month in early 1972, before closing for demolition.

Subsequently, lack of acceptance at Cal Arts persuaded Chicago and two other women faculty members to leave and create their own school, the Feminist Studio Workshop (FSW). Joining forces with Womanspace, a cooperative women’s art gallery, the FSW took over the old Chouinard Art School, turning it into the Woman’s Building. Housing almost a dozen feminist cultural project – FSW and also several exhibition and performance spaces, a bookstore, a theater group, and a graphics center- the Woman’s Building achieved national recognition as a center for women artists, and a series of conferences it hosted created a national feminist cultural dialogue.

 


 
Film was almost entirely absent from these projects. Though Judith Dancoff, a UCLA film student, visited the Fresno Program in 1970 with an all-woman crew, teaching film-making techniques to some of the students and shooting footage for her own film, ‘Judy Chicago and the California Girls’, the feminist art initiatives were rather developed in performance and painting.

 


 
The only significant films that emerged from this immensely important era were two documentaries by Johanna Demetralcas, ‘Womanhouse’ (1974) and ‘Right Out of History: The Making of Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party’ (1980), the first of them wonderfully capturing the esprit of Womanhouse. Introduced by a voice-over declaring its intention “to reveal the female experience,” the film is a montage with four main strands: discussions on the last night of the public exhibition in which the women who made it share their experiences and express what it meant to them; interviews with visitors, female (who are proud of its demonstration of what women can do) and male (some of whom are equally enthusiastic, others entirely uncomprehending); tours of the rooms and their installations, one, for example, whose walls are covered with plastic objects that resemble both fried eggs and breasts, and another where a mannequin is transfixed across the shelves of a cupboard; and documentations of the consciousness-raising performances that had taken place there. But apart from this work, film was unimportant in Womanhouse – even though, during the months when it was created, across town in Santa Monica two young women were beginning a project that would transform cinema: Siew-Hwa Beh and Saunie Salyer were preparing the first feminist journal, ‘Women & Film‘.

 

‘The Most Typical Avant-garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles’ by David E James, p. 353-354.

Women-run film spaces in London

Charlotte Brunsden notes, presciently of the #MeToo movement, in her 1986 book ‘Films for Women‘:

women working in film, but outside the agit-prop or feature area, are subjected to two different forms of pressure, both of which appear to militate against abstract and art-identified film work. Firstly there is the institutional masculinity, not only of art schools and film training, but of the cultural identity of The Artist. The second pressure, which often arises from the answer or response to the first, comes out of feminism itself, where there are very strong prejudices against difficult and avant-garde work, usually on grounds of accessibility. The demand is for work that is relevant and can be related to (all) women’s lives, the pressure being towards representational work.
Films for Women, p. 181

Film exhibition in London centred on female audiences has, like it’s L.A.-based counterpart, tended towards the esoteric work of women of the London Film-maker’s Co-op. The films of Sally Potter – who began making short films at London Film-maker’s Co-op – such as ‘Orlando’ point to the version of cinema exhibition which Brunsden is outlining, films which are both experimental – while sidestepping the implicit toxicity of auteurism and ‘woke’ male feminist film criticism – but which also respond to the pressure to be commercially viable.

One can imagine, in the era after thee successes of ‘The Hunger Games‘, and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale‘ on TV, of film franchises with figures like Margaret Atwood as show runners – in the mould of G R R Martin presiding over his ‘Games of Thrones’ media franchise – but where the women creators benefit both artistically and financially from their work.


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