Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Not Completely Frivolous Lists: Women's Names

In honor of the upcoming NYC screening of Esther Kahn, here is a list of my ten favorite films whose title consists solely of a woman's full name:

  • Daisy Kenyon
  • Esther Kahn
  • Cluny Brown
  • Vera Drake
  • Sylvia Scarlett
  • Lola Montes
  • Annie Hall
  • Vanina Vanini
  • Effi Briest
  • Nora Helmer

(Given how poorly Woody Allen's films have been faring with me on revisits, I'm hesitant to select Annie Hall...but I'll let it stand for now.)

And, just to be comprehensively silly, here's a list of my ten favorite films whose title consists solely of a woman's first name:

  • Gertrud
  • Christine (Alan Clarke)
  • Petulia
  • Alyonka
  • Raja
  • Marnie
  • Lola (Fassbinder)
  • Camille
  • Eva
  • Muriel

I made these lists because of an undocumented feeling that a disproportionate number of my favorite films are named after women. (I can verify that the list of films with men's names that I like at this level is about half the length of the women's list.) And I don't think this is a purely personal preference: I think that the auteurist tradition, which I absorbed as a novice cinephile, leans gynophilic.

The reasons for this leaning strike me as far from feminist. Certainly one notes that naming a film after a woman is akin to objectification.

To speculate further: tradition has ensured that male-centered films have often been about the exercise of power, about creating or altering destiny; and female-centered films have often been about being acted upon, about being at the mercy of larger forces, about destiny altering the protagonist.

It would follow that male-centered films would be more likely vehicles for the audience's power fantasies. Sometimes these fantasies are individualist: commercial cinema always has a prominent place for action-adventure films with powerful, victorious male heroes. Sometimes they are political - and cinema's political movements, which necessarily are built on power fantasies, have different ways of dealing with gender-based power issues. The Soviet cinema, for instance, made an official effort (I'll leave to historians the question of how successful the effort was) to invest women with a mythology of power rather than passivity; the woman's movement has had a similar tendency. On the other side, it often seems to me that the old American left, which grew as a social and cinematic force in the 30s, embraced the traditional masculine role, and occasionally risked misogyny by equating woman with the temptations of home and security that must be resisted by the politically committed male.

The politique des auteurs was associated in 50s France with a Catholic position, and frequently with a right-wing position. Positif, the magazine that most vigorously opposed the auteurism of Cahiers du Cinema, was committed to the political left, and saw the advocates of the politique as little more than fascists. (English-language readers who are interested in the history of the politique should try to find a copy of Peter Graham's out-of-print collection The New Wave, which translates and reprints articles from Positif, Cahiers and other magazines that illustrate the political issues at stake.)

I've always believed that the Catholic origins of auteurism, obscured over the years by other layers of ideology, had a lot to do with the prominence in the auteurist canon of films in which the world is a vale of tears, and protagonists (often women) are buffeted about by forces outside themselves, finding at best a spiritual victory. And Positif's tastes in American cinema, which reflected their political commitment, strike me as rather male-oriented.

I happen to feel that, in the final analysis, vale-of-tears movies reflect the human condition better than movies about victory over adversity. (As Pialat said in a late interview: "Death - it's not an improvement.") Not that you can't have good movies with active protagonists: the human condition covers a lot of territory. But this leaning of mine is probably the reason that my lists of favorite films contain so many movies with women's names.


Michael E. Kerpan Jr. said...

Isn't Charulata the name of the heroine of the film bearing the same name? This would have to be on any list I'd make up. ;~}

Anonymous said...

SECRET SUNSHINE is a perfect contemporary example of the kind of female-centered "vale of tears" narrative you describe. Stylistically, it doesn't have much in common with Rossellini, but I kept thinking that the plot would be perfect with Ingrid Bergman as the lead.

Unknown said...

Where's "Dolores Claiborne"??

Dan Sallitt said...

I haven't seen Dolores Claiborne. What's Taylor Hackford up to these days? I made him for a talented guy who got absorbed by Hollywood - but it's been a while since I've checked in on him.

It's been a while since I've seen Charulata - it's definitely time for another visit.

David said...

Hey Dan...Margie?!!?!

Dan Sallitt said...

Margie.... Margie is an interesting film. If Blake Lucas made a list, I bet Margie would be on it.

I certainly don't mean my dorky lists to be a comprehensive guide to films with women's names.

I've always been fascinated by the way that Margie subplot about getting the Marines out of Nicaragua sticks out of the film like a sore thumb. Who did that, I wonder?

Andy Rector said...

Hello Dan,,,
fascinating post. Alyonka, I'm still thanking you for that! (I found a better copy of BY THE BLUEST OF SEAS, still without subtitles, at the Los Angeles library in a particularly Russian part of town.)

I think there's a film that's a bit of an essay around the edges on all these issues you bring up of power, subjectivity, even "what's in a name": MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS by Joseph H. Lewis. Already the distinction of the First Person title. True, it is a victory over adversity film, but on the woman's side - at least at the level of the script; it would take a close analysis of the decoupage to know otherwise. Julia Ross fights death, death forced upon her by guilty fathers and sons. "The family" is fought, acceptence is fought. Julia Ross is a secretary for hire. She gets a new job but suddenly finds herself living with a rich family who tell her she has a different name, different identity, a different function. Thus the assertiveness of the title. So for a good part of the film there is a "crisis of consciousness". Not in the ordinary scriptwriting sense, more in the surrealist sense. I wonder if it's by chance that at times MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS has the same lean toward abstraction as DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID by Renoir. Based on the novel by Mirbeau, proto-surrealist. In any case, the unspecified realities that exist in the first half of the film, and the real suffering that Julia Ross endures under it (until she finds out its simply a frameup for a murder committed by the father), bring it close to a vale-of-tears film. Certainly out of the generic "victory" film.

And there's one more great one I wanted to mention, full name: NATHALIE GRANGER by Duras. It's a wonderous film as logical as Cluny, as mysterious and anguished as Daisy, as stark as Gertrud, as attentive to the light of France as MOUCHETTE. It was produced by Luc Moullet who made a doppelganger: BRIGITTE ET BRIGITTE.


Andy Rector said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Dan Sallitt said...

Andy - did I mention to you that there's a French-subtitled DVD of By the Bluest of Seas somwehere in the world? Let me know if you need more info. Now if only there was a subtitled version of Alyonka available....

(Isn't it horrible that Barnet's suicide note allegedly said that he'd lost his ability to make good movies? And his last two films were Alyonka and Whistle Stop! I guess there's no reasoning with depression...but one can't help but wonder whether a more sensitive film culture might have saved his life.)

I like My Name Is Julia Ross a lot, and I definitely see your point about how well it illustrates the idea I was writing about. Interestingly, the vibe I get from it is that the victimized heroine is rather resourceful and powerful: the experience of identifying with her doesn't feel masochistic. By contrast, Gaslight, which is probably the A-film archetype for Julia Ross, is all about having power taken away from you.

There was an 80s remake of Julia Ross, directed by Arthur Penn, that went so far as to borrow some of Lewis's compositions, and didn't acknowledge the remake at all in its credits. It was probably easier to pull that kind of scam before there was Internet culture. Anyway, the can-do vibe that I detect in Lewis's film is totally dissipated in the remake.

Next time I see the Lewis film, I'll mentally juxtapose The Diary of a Chambermaid (a great film that I somehow didn't appreciate until a second viewing) and see what happens. I've never seen Nathalie Granger - I'll try to rectify that omission.