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Why these films by women directors from the 1970s and '80s need to be seen

Why these films by women directors from the 1970s and '80s need to be seen
Patricia Charbonneau, left, and Helen Shaver appear in "Desert Hearts" by Donna Deitch. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

In a 1980 interview with the director Claudia Weill, the late critic Roger Ebert bemoaned, "It's simply one of the things we're going to have to get over, this business of thinking and writing about 'women directors.'"

Recent studies have, of course, shown that men still direct a wildly disproportionate number of feature films. All these years later, Ebert's notion of moving past the gender distinction — so that Weill and those who followed in her footsteps could be asked about their movies and not about being women directors — still feels like wishful thinking.

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"What A Difference: Women and Film in the 1970s and 1980s," a new series at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, is an instructive look at an earlier moment for female filmmakers. Running from Feb. 4-27, the series takes in heady, more rigorous works as well as films with a freewheeling edginess, showing how the work of female filmmakers does not signify any one specific type of storytelling.

"I think for all of us it felt like this is an important history that has been overlooked," UCLA programmer Paul Malcolm said. "We need to be having this conversation. Since Hollywood seems to have this recurring problem, we should really go back and start looking at some of the history here."

The series begins Saturday night with Donna Deitch's 1986 lesbian romantic drama "Desert Hearts," starring Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau, and presented in a newly restored version. The UCLA program also includes three of Deitch's earlier short films.

"Desert Hearts" won a special jury prize at the 1986 Sundance Film Festival and the restored version recently played at the 2017 edition of the festival, with Deitch, production designer Jeannine Oppewall (now a four-time Oscar nominee) and cinematographer Robert Elswit (subsequently an Oscar winner) in attendance.

For filmmakers such as Deitch or Weill, who lived through earlier iterations of conversations on female filmmakers, the recent attention to the low numbers of women directing feature films might feel like institutional wheel-spinning, as if things never truly change.

"We're certainly not spinning our wheels by having the conversation. The conversation must be had," Deitch said in a recent interview. "And it must be had over and over and over again until there is parity in the hiring of women and men as directors. That cannot go away. Women are 51% of the population and women need to be telling half of the stories as directors. And the stories themselves, women's stories need to be told."

In a separate interview, Weill said about the working life of women directors, "I think it's changed. In 1980 people doubted it or still asked if it was appropriate. And not everybody was behind it. Now there's been extensive reports analyzing all the data and the extent of it has been documented. And in other industries as well, in tech and across the boards you see similar levels of discrimination. The consciousness is so much more there, I think the conversation is changing."

I didn’t even realize what I was doing was so unusual.


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A highlight from the UCLA series is Weill's 1978 debut feature "Girlfriends," a look at a young female photographer (played by a pre-"thirtysomething" Melanie Mayron) trying to make it in NYC, something like if "Annie Hall" were focused solely on the character of Annie Hall. "Girlfriends" has been cited as an influence by "Girls" creator Lena Dunham and was praised by filmmaker Stanley Kubrick.

"I didn't even realize what I was doing was so unusual," Weill said. "I wasn't thinking about that. When you're making your own film you sort of have blinders on.

"When I made 'Girlfriends' there hadn't been somebody like Melanie Mayron before in films," Weill continued. "Melanie is from the lineage of what we call the Rhoda lineage, the other girl, not the protagonist, not the super pretty one who gets married. She's the other girl, the arty girl, the bossy girl, the weird girl, the funny girl."

Also showing in the series is "Smithereens," Susan Seidelman's 1982 film set amid the same New York bohemian scene she would return to as a partial backdrop for 1985's "Desperately Seeking Susan."

Bette Gordon's 1983 film "Variety" turns the rational point-of-view of cinema around by focusing on a young woman who takes a job as a ticket-taker at a pornographic movie theater.

The program also features Joan Micklin Silver's 1975 "Hester Street," with an Academy Award-nominated performance by Carol Kane; Chantal Akerman's epochal 1975 "Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080, Bruxelles" and Laura Mulvey's 1977 "Riddles of the Sphinx."

Joyce Chopra's 1985 "Smooth Talk" is a film ripe for rediscovery with a performance by a young Laura Dern that The Times' original review declared "one of the finest, most sustained and shatteringly observed we've had this year."

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Filmmaker Julie Dash has recently received a lot of attention for the influence her 1991 feature "Daughters of the Dust" had on Beyoncé's long-form "Lemonade" project; the UCLA program is screening Dash's 1975 short film "Four Women," set to the song of the same name by Nina Simone.

Barbara Loden as Wanda Goronski in the 1970 movie "Wanda," directed by Loden.
Barbara Loden as Wanda Goronski in the 1970 movie "Wanda," directed by Loden. (UCLA Film & Television Archive / UCLA Film & Television Archive)

The UCLA series also features "Wanda," written and directed by Barbara Loden, who also stars in the 1970 film, which has moved out of relative obscurity to be seen as a key work of early American independent filmmaking. The film was name-checked in "Medicine for Melancholy," the debut feature by Oscar-nominated "Moonlight" director Barry Jenkins. "Wanda" was the only film directed by Loden, a Tony-winning stage actress and wife of Elia Kazan. She died in 1980.

The UCLA Archive has featured programs of works by earlier female filmmakers, such as Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino, but the new series places female filmmakers within their cultural moment of the 1970s and '80s that saw a concurrent rise in feminist writing and critical thought.

"The general thinking is that there was a lot of really radical, experimental feminist filmmaking in the 1970s in which the fundamental question was, what does a woman's film look like, what is the language of a feminist cinema," explained Malcolm. "And then you have a more general trend in the 1980s where representing women's stories and feminist issues were so paramount, the form wasn't necessarily as challenging while the stories were important. "

In shining a spotlight on filmmakers such as Deitch, Weill, Seidelman and Loden, the UCLA "What A Difference" series brings to light the vitality and excitement in the work that feels as fresh today as when these films first premiered. So while the statistic regarding female filmmakers in Hollywood may still get people down, the actual work created by these women does exactly the opposite.

"There's a lot about this program that suggests the downside of things, that this is a history cut short," Malcolm said. "But the most interesting and exciting thing about watching these films is not even that these are films made by women in the '70s and '80s, but nobody is making movies like this anymore.

"These are radical films. Whether their form is radical or just that they are focusing on women's stories that is radical ...  it's a radicalized independent cinema that had a voice and had a message and all this incredible talent to get it up on the screen. This is really the kind of filmmaking we could use a lot more of."

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WHAT A DIFFERENCE: WOMEN AND FILM IN THE 1970s AND 1980s

"Desert Hearts," Sat., Feb. 4, 7:30 p.m. In person: Donna Deitch, independent curator Sally Berger.

"Hester Street" / "The Gold Diggers," Sun., Feb. 5, 7 p.m.

Where: Billy Wilder Theater, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles.

Tickets: $8 to $10. (UCLA students, free.)

Follow on Twitter: @IndieFocus

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