Reconsidering the AFI’s 100 Films: The Missing Half of the Equation

Many of you probably watched the American Film Institute’s special several weeks ago during which they celebrated a hundred great American films. (Never mind that several of the films were by any definition I came up with actually British productions — a mistake which the organization got called upon the last time they constructed such a list — suggesting that if it is in the English language, Hollywood will lay claim to it and if it isn’t, it has no business being part of the American film scene!) The list included many films which most of us would agree belong up there with the greats — including some personal favorites of mine, such as Citizen Kane, Casablanca, It’s A Wonderful Life, Gone With the Wind, and The Godfather, to cite just a few from the top levels of the list.

Yet, several groups have raised significant questions about what’s missing from this — any film made by a female director.

Before you argue that women simply didn’t direct any of the best 100 films made in this country, you might consider that the final selection was made for a ballot of 400 titles out of which the American Film Institute included only four films directed by women (Penny Marshall’s Big, Amy Heckering’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation). As Mediascape’s

Erin Hill and Brian Hu ask, “Does that mean that women are inferior directors? Hardly. Does that mean that women have been kept out of the director’s chair? Yes and no.” Hill and Hu helped to poll a group of several dozen film scholars and filmmakers to see if they could come up with a list of 100 great American films directed by women, hoping that such a list would help us to better understand the roles women directors have played across the history of the American cinema.

As they have done so, the first accommodation they needed to make was to extend the AFI’s focus on feature-length mainstream fiction films to include a much broader range of genres and formats, reflecting the reality that women have historically been forced to work on the margins of the mainstream industry but have made innovative contributions to independent, experimental and documentary film production, for example. Even where we consider feature length fictional films, women have most often operated on the margins — working on B-films (as in the case of Ida Lupino) or exploitation films (as in the case of Stephanie Rothman). Only as we get to the most recent films on the list do we get to large budget Hollywood productions (and that’s why all three of the films which the AFI included by female directors have come out in the last two decades.) Here’s a subset of the films which they identified (listed in chronological order):

* MABEL’S BUSY DAY (Mabel Normand, 1914)

* THE BLOT (Lois Weber, 1921)

* DANCE, GIRL, DANCE (Dorothy Arzner, 1940)

* MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON (Maya Deren & Alexander Hammid, 1943)

* OUTRAGE (Ida Lupino, 1950)

* THE COOL WORLD (Shirley Clarke, 1964)

* BAD GIRLS GO TO HELL (Doris Wishman, 1965)

* A NEW LEAF (Elaine May, 1971)

* TERMINAL ISLAND (Stephanie Rothman, 1973)

* HARLAN COUNTY U.S.A. (Barbara Kopple, 1976)

* NEWS FROM HOME (Chantal Ackerman, 1977)

* GIRLFRIENDS (Claudia Weill, 1978)

* THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION (Penelope Spheeris, 1981)

* DESERT HEARTS (Donna Deitch, 1985)

* DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN (Susan Seidelman, 1985)

* WORKING GIRLS (Lizzie Borden, 1986)

* NEAR DARK (Kathryn Bigelow, 1987)

* SURNAME VIET GIVEN NAME NAM (Trinh T. Minh-ha, 1989)

* A PLACE CALLED LOVELY (Sadie Benning, 1991)

* DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (Julie Dash, 1991)

* LITTLE MAN TATE (Jodie Foster, 1991)

* MISSISSIPPI MASALA (Mira Nair, 1991)

* A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN (Penny Marshall, 1992)

* MI VIDA LOCA (Allison Anders, 1993)

* GO FISH (Rose Troche, 1994)

* CLUELESS (Amy Heckerling, 1995)

* WATERMELON WOMAN (Cheryl Dunye, 1996)

* PRIVATE PARTS (Betty Thomas, 1997)

* FRIDA (Julie Taymor, 2002)

* AMERICAN SPLENDOR (Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini, 2003)

* MONSTER (Patty Jenkins, 2003)

* SHERRYBABY (Laurie Collyer, 2006)

* MARIE ANTOINETTE (Sofia Coppola, 2006)

You can see the rest of the list here. Several other patterns emerge: the list of women filmmakers also includes a much higher number of filmmakers of color and openly queer filmmakers than the list the American Film Institute produced for mass market consumption. (The AFI list, after all, is part of a special promotion designed to encourage people to rent and buy dvds of the selected films and only films currently available in dvd format are eligible for consideration. Many of these films, especially the earlier ones, have not yet gone into this kind of broader distribution.) Roughly a quarter of the selected films have been made since 1999, suggesting just how recently women have been able to exert a powerful and consistent presence in mainstream and independent cinema.

As someone who has written about Stephanie Rothman (The Velvet Vampire, Terminal Island, Working Girls), for example, in an essay included in my new book, The Wow Climax, I found her inclusion on the list raised some provocative questions for me. Here’s how I sum up what’s interesting about Rothman’s work:

Rothman’s politics are nowhere more utopian than when they deal with the erotic material that is at the heart of the exploitation film and this may explain why she chose to continue to work within these genres, even when she gained control over the mode of production at Dimension Pictures, the studio she co-founded with her writer-producer husband Charles Swartz. Rothman’s engagement with the exploitation genres was a tactical one; she agrees to follow certain formulas and produce certain images, in order to gain access to systems of production, distribution, and exhibition. Working within the popular cinema, she will reach a broader audience than a political avant-garde filmmaker; Terminal Island can be found at my local Blockbuster, while Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames can not. The exploitation cinema demands that she work with certain exploitable elements, yet she finds ways to redefine those images to speak to alternative pleasures and politics. At the same time, the exploitation cinema holds progressive potentials, facilitating stories with strong female protagonists, stories of exploitation and resistance, victimization and empowerment. Rothman borrows these stories from Roger Corman and from the broader generic history of New World and she seeks to render these stories meaningful to women. She does not fully control the promotion and reception of her films; she can not fully prevent those images and stories from being used in a reactionary fashion. Yet, for these very reasons, their radical potential takes on new importance. The people who go to see Born in Flames probably already have a solid commitment to feminism; the people who go to see Terminal Island probably do not. If most of her feminist politics falls on deaf ears, some of it probably gets heard, and in being heard, creates an opening for change where none existed before.

The vexing complexities of this situation may account for why Pam Cook’s persistent attempts to claim Rothman for feminism have not had the impact of her similar arguments on behalf of Dorothy Arzner. Arzner’s oppositional and marginal position as a lesbian woman operating within the classical Hollywood system could be taken for granted. Arzner’s radical difference, her disruption of the codes of classical cinema and her exposure of the mechanisms of female spectacle, can be read against a shared understanding of the classical Hollywood cinema as allowing only limited space for female expression. Rothman’s “counter-cinema,” on the other hand, occurs against the backdrop of a producer (Corman) and studio (New World) already associated with leftist politics and within genres already seen as outside dominant film practice. The exploitation cinema, paradoxically, displayed the most reactionary and patriarchal tendencies of the commercial cinema and at the same time, an already partially realized radical potential. Rothman can be seen, then, as working both within and in opposition to the exploitation film, a complex set of “negotiations” which allow no simple labeling of her films. Her cinema is “partially corrupt.” This is its curse and that is its power.

Can we then reduce this “complex set of negotiations” between genre, studio, audience, and filmmaker to the standards of classic entertainment which define our expectations about what belongs on a list of the 100 Greatest American Films of All Time? I am not certain.

The AFI list calls out for beloved films, yet it is hard to say that Rothman’s work is beloved even among those of us who are its most enthusiastic supporters. She didn’t seek to be loved; she sought to challenge and disrupt the conventions of the genres within which she worked.

The AFI List calls out for polished work but Rothman was given neither the time or the budget to achieve polished work: her exploitation films are ragged, bearing the marks of the painful compromises which shaped their production.

The AFI list calls out for accomplished works, but Rothman’s films often have to be judged based on their potentials because she wasn’t allowed to fully achieve what she set out to accomplish.

The AFI list prioritizes certain genres which are seen as prestigious and important but Rothman was never got to work in those genres.

The AFI list calls for films which had a wide impact on American culture but Rothman’s films never received the distribution and promotion they would need to have a wide impact. The same can be said for many of the other filmmakers on this list.

All of this may sound like special pleading in the context of our usual list-making activities — and perhaps it is — but it is also a reflection of the struggles women filmmakers have faced in order to gain access to the means of production and distribution their male counterparts have taken for granted. All of these lists probably need to read alongside a copy of Joanna Russ’s “How to Suppress Women’s Writing,” which spells out the diverse reasons critics have deployed to argue that women’s creative work doesn’t measure up to the standards of literary excellence which define the canon. But before you dismiss those critics, give yourself a gut check to see how you reacted to some of the films listed above. That immediate response — “they don’t belong here” — suggests the need to reassess the criteria we deploy to evaluate “great films” and whether those “standards” are appropriate for accounting for the full range of interesting and important work in the history of the American cinema.

Another list was prepared by the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, attempting to identify films by male and female directors that they felt should have been included on the AFI ballot. Their list is much more mainstream than the one prepared by Mediascape, seeking films by women filmmakers which would hold up under the same criteria as those which put the male directors on the original AFI list. If the Mediascape list has circulated almost entirely within an academic film context, the Alliance list has succeeded in getting national media attention, directing much needed interest onto the place of female directors in the history of American cinema. Both list raise questions that need to be considered if we are going to put the AFI List in its full context.

Comments

  1. Madeline says:

    I think part of the trouble is that when we think of the AFI list, we’re by necessity thinking of “the great directors” (instead of a great team of writers, director, editor, cinematographer, etc.). And too often, thinking of great directors means thinking of auteurs. It’s part of our collective definition of a great director — a rogue genius, a mad scientist of film. Being an auteur means being un-feminine to some extent: auteurs are perceived as controlling, proprietary, and omniscient — traits not traditionally valued in women.

    I say this because as I read the alternative list, I was immediately gratified to see Julie Taymor’s presence there. But then I realized that yes, of course I thought she belonged — I think of her an auteur. Like the male directors on the AFI list, she brings a distinct sensibility and aesthetic to her films. She rarely settles for anything but complete creative control. In a man, we applaud this stubbornness. But in a woman, we might shy away — perhaps because encouraging directors like Taymor to be so uncompromising means dealing with the subject matter they might like to examine. In Taymor’s case, that means the body, incest, art, reproduction, violence, and gender. And while Taymor’s films are just as fantastic and surreal as Gilliam’s and just as violent at Tarantino’s, they remain noticeably different.

    So in the end I think there are two societal limitations to greater recognition of female directors and their films: the first is a reticence to deal with or believe in female auteurs (despite the fact that auteurs are so highly prized), and the second is a similar reticence to recognize the multi-faceted creative process that is film-making, and to shed the auteur model altogether.

  2. I’m fascinated that talk of exclusion is the most likely response to any list of this type, followed closely, of course, by “How could THAT have gotten in and not MY favorite?!” Reading through Mediascape’s list such a reaction was amplified because it was a list of excluded things, and all I could think of was what had been excluded from IT. I found it hilarious that Elaine May’s ISHTAR made it onto the list (a film whose previously overstated un-reputation has turned it into the pet project of many a critic) until I noticed that her brilliant film MIKEY AND NICKY had been left off.

    Regarding the larger issue: AFI is not an organization whose critical opinion I respect, and as you point out, DVD sales were the main impetus behind the creation of this list, not canonization.

  3. Rebecca says:

    I’m a young feminist who has discovered Stephanie Rothman through weekly midnight movie screenings at my local movie house. Thank you so much for writing about her- her work is fascinating and more people should know about it.

    Terminal Island? I prefer Student Nurses myself. :)