Everything contained within David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) seems ornamental and meticulously arranged, its creativity stylised with mystery at its core. Electricity whirs around every static object and every canned phrase, and its terrified audience is reminded that this is just a film, just a film, ‘just a tape’. As its narrative follows hopeful actress and amnesiac through fractured realities of Hollywood, Mulholland Drive becomes an apparition that progressively retracts further in on itself and away from its own construction of reality. And by the film’s end (also understood as its beginning), we arrive at its internal, twisted centre.
Though it presents a familiar devotion to insatiability and a fervency for Neo-Noir, Mulholland Drive is considered by some the apex of Lynch’s career. Lynch’s films are characterised as distinctly hypnotic in their half-conscious, disorientating terrain, yet these qualities are especially refined in Mulholland Drive. Establishing its exceptionality further, Mulholland Drive presents an emphatic exhibition of sacrifice that surpasses its precursors. There is a highly dramatised sacrifice of cinematic convention and narrative formula, made visible by its replacement with illogic, aesthetics and impulsion. Enervated and disturbed by this disorder, its audience forcibly uncovers something compellingly insidious that permeates and shapes the tangled, fatalistic lives of Betty/Diane (Naomi Watts) and Rita/Camilla (Laura Harring).
It is both empty and overflowing, insufficient and intoxicating. Mulholland Drive illuminates an instability of perception, filmic and real, as its audience is pulled through a temporal and spatial kaleidoscope with unnerving rapidity. They are constantly tempted and perplexed, tempted by whatever is in that blue box, perplexed by the converging beginning and end, though both threads of speculation yield more unanswered questions.
Theorising Mulholland Drive requires a process of abstraction. It is exhaustively unending, as affirmed by its cult following, to try and piece this film together in a way that mirrors our own conceptions of linearity and experience, and this is its ingenuity. Mulholland Drive doesn’t capture realism, rather it captures a perversion of realism and its uncharted spaces, along with its literal and continual assertion that it is a film, it is grotesque, it is abstract art.
Mulholland Drive experiments with technical and critical ideas of filmmaking, as Lynch dangles a narrative before his audience yet resists quenching their appetite for familiarity. He poses questions rather than answers, offers intrigue rather than information. Though to call this film a master of intrigue would inhibit its complexity, clamp its creative parameters. Rather, Mulholland Drive captures all that is excellent in filmmaking by honing in on its antithetical, darker ego. It robs its audience of security and linearity, it redefines how we consume film and generates a crowd of infiltrators who peer inside a private, perplexing game between Lynch and cinematic meaning.
Joel Coen’s The Big Lebowski (1998) exhibits an unusual strand of comic excellence. It’s part of the 90s emergence of film noir/ comedy, with Tony Scott’s True Romance (1993), Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994), and Coen’s own Fargo (1996) among its precursors. These films exist within a cinematic universe wherein criminality is distinguished with moments of high art cinematography and a consciousness of the spectacular, ridiculous nature of the fiction on screen. Where The Big Lebowski particularly succeeds is with its playful exaggeration, sensationalising its own hilarity with a nod to film noir and its own parodied version of its genre. Comedy definitely isn’t realism, though it often presents itself as such, with Jeff Bridge’s ‘The Dude’ as the ultimate, recognisable slacker.
“what are you talking about?”
It’s a question Jeff ‘The Dude’ Lebowski (Bridges) constantly asks Walter Sobochak (John Goodman), or whoever he is with, and one the audience asks too. With a consciously comic strategy, aligning a character’s confusion with the audience’s, Bridges’ character interacts with the audience in a way that is unusual in comedy. The Dude almost breaks the fourth wall yet doesn’t commit to such a generic convention. Rather, he speaks for us, not to us. Instead of looking out at his audience, reminding them of the often forgotten yet glaringly obvious aspect that they are watching a film, The Dude seems to acknowledge the film’s chaos in a way that obscures conventional comedy. He is more than a vehicle by which the comedy measures against his own reaction, and in turn, our own. The Big Lebowski‘s comic success acknowledges The Dude’s specific position as an outsider and spectator, visually and charismatically, as he peers inside a world of criminality.
Becoming more than the protagonist for his centrality to the plot, The Dude as a slacker is vital to the comic integrity of the film. Hilariously and famously underdressed in a robe and jelly sandals, the gag of the film is that Bridges’ character seems to deliberately embody someone who looks as though they’ve accidentally wandered onto the set of the film’s production.
Elements of accident and chance shape the film’s narrative and character arcs and add to the hilarity. With accident as its premise, the plot itself revolves around the hazardous confusion between Bridges’ character and another, far more affluent Jeff Lebowski. The Big Lebowski envisions a style of comedy that isn’t insular and self-contained, but one that flows off-screen with an unruliness that feels faultlessly improvised and hilariously unending and accidental.
This produced spontaneity is definitely not a criticism of the Coen brother’s expert story-writing, rather a seemingly impossible accomplishment within a genre of films that are so often garishly constructed and unbelievable.
The unbelievable aspect of The Big Lebowski isn’t the slacker and his spectatorship comedy, it’s the criminal world he completely juxtaposes yet finds himself inhabiting.
Susan Sontag wrote on Diane Arbus in her seminal essay America, seen through photographs, darkly, in which Arbus’ vision is forcefully and evocatively examined. Below are excerpts from Sontag’s masterful and unparalleled analysis, exhibiting Arbus as a complicatedly humanist, voyeuristic, privileged, artist, admirer and documenter of “freaks”, children, couples, performers, disability and nonconformity.
Instead of people whose appearance pleases, representative folk doing their human thing, the Arbus show lined up assorted monsters and borderline cases—most of them ugly; wearing grotesque or unflattering clothing; in dismal or barren surroundings—who have paused to pose and, often, to gaze frankly, confidentially at the viewer. Arbus’s work does not invite viewers to identify with the pariahs and miserable-looking people she photographed. Humanity is not “one.” The Arbus photographs convey the anti-humanist message which people of good will in the 1970s are eager to be troubled by, just as they wished, in the 1950s, to be consoled and distracted by a sentimental humanism. There is not as much difference between these messages as one might suppose.
The most striking aspect of Arbus’s work is that she seems to have enrolled in one of art photography’s most vigorous enterprises—concentrating on victims, on the unfortunate—but without the compassionate purpose that such a project is expected to serve. Her work shows people who are pathetic, pitiable, as well as repulsive, but it does not arouse any compassionate feelings. For what would be more correctly described as their dissociated point of view, the photographs have been praised for their candor and for an unsentimental empathy with their subjects. What is actually their aggressiveness toward the public has been treated as a moral accomplishment: that the photographs don’t allow the viewer to be distant from the subject. More plausibly, Arbus’s photographs—with their acceptance of the appalling—suggest a naïveté which is both coy and sinister, for it is based on distance, on privilege, on a feeling that what the viewer is asked to look at is really other. Buñuel, when asked once why he made movies, said that it was “to show that this is not the best of all possible worlds.” Arbus took photographs to show something simpler—that there is another world.
The photographs of deviates and real freaks do not accent their pain but, rather, their detachment and autonomy. The female impersonators in their dressing rooms, the Mexican dwarf in his Manhattan hotel room, the Russian midgets in a living room on 100th Street, and their kin are mostly shown as cheerful, self-accepting, matter-of-fact. Pain is more legible in the portraits of the normals: the quarreling elderly couple on a park bench, the New Orleans lady bartender at home with a souvenir dog, the boy in Central Park clenching his toy hand grenade.
For Arbus, the camera photographs the unknown. But unknown to whom? Unknown to someone who is protected, who has been schooled in moralistic and in prudent responses. Like Nathanael West, another artist fascinated by the deformed and mutilated, Arbus came from a verbally skilled, compulsively health-minded, indignation-prone, well-to-do Jewish family, for whom minority sexual tastes lived way below the threshold of awareness and risk-taking was despised as another goyish craziness. “One of the things I felt I suffered from as a kid,” Arbus wrote, “was that I never felt adversity. I was confined in a sense of unreality…. And the sense of being immune was, ludicrous as it seems, a painful one.” Feeling much the same discontent, West in 1927 took a job as a night clerk in a seedy Manhattan hotel. Arbus’s way of procuring experience, and thereby acquiring a sense of reality, was the camera. By experience was meant, if not material adversity, at least psychological adversity—the shock of immersion in experiences that cannot be beautified, the encounter with what is taboo, perverse, evil. Arbus’s interest in freaks expresses a desire to violate her own innocence, to undermine her sense of being privileged, to vent her frustration at being safe. Apart from West, the 1930s yield few examples of this kind of distress. More typically, it is the sensibility of someone educated and middle-class who came of age between 1945 and 1955—a sensibility that was to flourish precisely in the 1960s….
Arbus is an auteur in the most limiting sense, as special a case in the history of photography as is Giorgio Morandi, who spent a half century doing still lifes of bottles, in the history of modern European painting. She does not, like most ambitious photographers, play the field of subject matter—even a little. On the contrary, all her subjects are equivalent. And making equivalences between freaks, mad people, suburban couples, and nudists is a very powerful judgment, one in complicity with a recognizable political mood shared by many educated, left-liberal Americans. The subjects of Arbus’s photographs are all members of the same family, inhabitants of a single village. Only, as it happens, the idiot village is America. Instead of showing identity between things which are different, everybody is shown to look the same.
Susan Sontag ‘On Photography’ 1973, electronic edition published 2005 by RosettaBooks LLC, New York
As pro-suburban policies were launched in conjunction with a national construction program of 1945, suburbs sprouted all over America and increased the attainability of the American Dream. Surviving from frontier to front-line, this ethos saw nuclear families in pastel neighbourhoods supplanting the horrors of war with their picket fences, Tupperware parties, and flowerbeds.
William Levitt, hailed as the ‘father of suburbia’, developed a scheme with his firm Levitt & Sons that allowed them to build mass-producible and inexpensive housing for the flood of returning veterans in America. In the three separate developments of New York (1947-51), Pennsylvania (1952-58) and New Jersey (1958), the firm offered small houses that could be built in just one day. Despite the modern approach to assembly, the homes themselves strayed little from the conventions of house design upheld by Americans at the time. The structures were revolutionary in their construction, but nostalgia was manifest in their appearance. Within the settings of the ‘Colonial’ or ‘Ranch’ type, the lives of nuclear families were aided and improved by efficient, hygienic and top-of-the-range appliances. Returning from the horrors of war, the veterans were awarded with domesticity.
However, due to the standardisation of the Levittown houses, the homogeneity of the streets became a popular criticism. As Levitt sorted his residents by income, each house-type was grouped by neighbourhood, rendering swathes of streets indistinguishable. The long history of racial segregation further upturns this narrative of a suburban utopia. The development in New York was founded on the basis that it was only available to white people alone. Indeed, this stipulation was written into the house contracts by Levitt stating, ‘no dwelling shall be used or occupied except by members of the caucasian race’. Sales agents were advised to turn away black families and automatically register their applications as unsuccessful. Even after the states enforced a non-discrimination law, sales agents located the black applicants away from their white neighbours. The homogeneity of the residents is thus facilitated by this aim to constitute a community with a specific racial identity.
The little boxes of American suburbia are some of film’s most frequented locations, its homogeneity frequently rendering the protagonist or narrative as extraordinary in comparison. In films that centre around a singular character, think Carrie, Donnie Darko and The Truman Show, the protagonists display their deviation within a stifling suburban setting.
In Carrie (1976) (dir: Brian de Palma), the title character faces unanticipated menstruation, peer-bullying, and abuse from her Christian fundamentalist mother. Carrie Whites’s telekinetic powers are the ultimate deviation from the claustrophobic household and school her mother and peers respectively enforce. Following Carrie’s murderous revenge and the burning down of her house, the final scene begins with an opening shot of suburbia. Birds sing and the sun casts shadows on a manicured lawn. The scorched plot where the White house once stood is set up as its inverse. This contrast serves as a reminder of suburbia’s nightmarish potentiality, one that is shown in the final scene, to still haunt the sole survivor of Carrie’s rage.
In Donnie Darko (2001) (dir: Richard Kelly), suburbia is first introduced as a landscape of mundane yet tranquil normality. In the opening scene, Darko cycles through the streets, the camera panning to the morning joggers. Darko’s father is shown blowing leaves off his lawn, and his sister plays on a trampoline. Immediately Darko is set up as the anomaly – an adolescent who frequents a psychotherapist, disturbs classes, and treats his family with hostility. Again the underside of suburbia is unleashed. The tranquility first introduced is done away with by the end of the film and instead suburbia is set as the home of supernatural powers, multiple universes and sexual deviants.
In The Truman Show (1998) (dir: Peter Weir), suburbia is a simulation. As a product of a corporation, the life of Truman Burbank is broadcasted live around the world as reality entertainment. Here suburbia is not intended to be residential. Instead, cameras are hidden within each wall and suburbia is presented as the ultimate facilitator of voyeurism. When Burbank realises the reality of his situation, this realisation marks his deviation from the suburbia. He becomes transgressive, determined and defiant, assets the suburban simulation attempted to suppress.
The placidity regularly assigned to suburbia is exploited in the genre of horror. Films like Halloween (1978) (dir: John Carpenter) set the horrific actions of Michael Myers within the sleepy streets of Haddonfield. Get Out (2017) (dir: Jordan Peele) subverts this in the setting of the Armitage country-estate. However, despite its isolation, the systematic racism and manicured appearance of the estate seem Levittownian in their presentation.
AmericanBeauty (1999) (dir: Sam Mendes) has been described by critics as a satire of middle-class notions of beauty, sexuality, materialism and personal satisfaction. In the opening monologue, Lester Burnham introduces his suburban place of residence with contempt:
‘This is my neighbourhood. This is my street. This is my life. I’m 42 years old. In less than a year, I’ll be dead … And in a way I’m dead already’.
Films like Edward Scissorhands (1990) (dir: Tim Burton) and The Virgin Suicides (1999) (dir: Sofia Coppola) use suburbia to emphasise the abnormality of their central storyline. In the former, Edward’s behaviour, appearance and physicality are stark contrasts to the pastel utopia of the suburb. As the film progresses, his disruption to the homogeneity of the community ultimately results in his eviction by mob force. In the 1999 film, it is the suicide of the youngest daughter that disrupts – the setting of suburbia heightening the atypicality of her action.
For Levitt, suburbia offered security. In film, that veneer is firmly pulled back.
Best Sound Mixing (Skip Lievsay, Craig Henighan and Jose Antonio Garcia)
Best Sound Editing (Sergio Diaz and Skip Lievsay)
Best Production Design (Eugenio Caballero and Barbara Enriquez)
Cuarón’s vision of 1970s Mexico speaks to moments of the human condition with such devastation and simplicity that one is left rendered speechless by the time the credits roll. In the Roma district of Mexico, we watch Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and her occupation as a maid to a middle-class family (Marina de Tavira as matriarch) gradually and forcefully evolve into an endoscopic narrative of human interaction, loss, and displacement.
Historicized within the Corpus Christi Massacre (El Halconazo) of 1971, Roma expands an existing cultural image of a historical moment that, in turn, grants focus to the individual, placing identity and isolated moments of experience to the forefront of trauma and devastation: a perspective that rings with vitality in the faceless presentations of mass trauma serialised in the media. Its spaces are flooded with white heat and nostalgia for Mexican summer and unmediated expression, synchronising to voice Cleo’s experience and her personal orientation of trauma and devastation before we as audience become conscious of it ourselves.
Cuarón writes “When setting up Roma, I wasn’t concerned about narrative, I was concerned about memory…I was concerned about spaces, textures, and trusting that all of that together would interweave a narrative by itself…a cinematic narrative.” Collective, historical memory is redefined. Cleo becomes the vehicle by which Cuarón unravels ideas of the human condition, and we feel so deeply every second we are beside him.
metacritic score: 96
wasteland rating: 5/5
winner of Best Picture
winner of Best Director (Alfonso Cuarón)
winner of Best Actress (Yalitza Aparicio)
winner of Best Foreign Language Film (Mexico)
winner of Best Cinematography (Alfonso Cuarón)
BlackKklansman (2018) dir. Spike Lee
Best Director (Spike Lee)
Best Supporting Actor (Adam Driver)
Best Adapted Screenplay (Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee)
Best Original Score (Terence Blanchard)
Best Film Editing (Barry Alexander Brown)
The entertaining, partially biographical universe of BlackKklansman is formulaically comparable to the tale of a superhero. John David Washington plays protagonist/cop Ron Stallworth and the narrative revolves around his performative white identity and infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan, in which he imitates a white national socialist with the help of fellow officer Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver (nominated for Best Supporting Actor).
A lot of the BlackKklansman’s cultural gravitas does not rely on the violent crime-comedy aesthetic, of which the film presents in excess, but on the withstanding radicalism of being a black police officer in a time of police brutality. Watching in the context of movements such as Black Lives Matter, BlackKklansman expands the parameters of what we understand as the ‘historical film’, for its thematisation of race self-consciously and deliberately addresses the present with more vivacity than a comparison between two different epochs. We don’t draw a line between the history of then and now, we see moments as continued, repeated, speaking the same cultural language.
Spike Lee succeeds in transforming what feels like a graphic novel to the screen, and we are thoroughly entertained as we begin to unpack what is often presented to us as distant history in its memorialised representations, of the civil rights movement, the KKK, police brutality and systemic racism, reconsidered as contemporary realism.
metacritic score: 83
wasteland rating: 3.5/5
winner of Best Adapted Screenplay
Cold War (2018) dir. Pawel Pawlikowski
Best Director (Pawel Pawlikowski )
Best Cinematography (Lukasz Zal)
Best Foreign-Language Film (Poland)
Pawel Pawlikowski fits a surplus of entertainment in the timeline of Cold War. Its rapidity is so sophisticated and endearing that we only notice how nuanced each frame is when it’s too late and we’re already absorbed in the next faultless moment.
There is a simultaneous amount of intensity and softness within its mastery, and this spreads into the romance narrative and its comedy. The dialogue feels stripped back, with every word bound exclusively to absolute truth and expression. We skip the trivialities with a wariness that we are missing them. Each moment feels meticulously planned yet also spontaneously, wildly authentic in equal measure.
metacritic rating: 90
wasteland rating: 4.5/5
The Favourite (2018) dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
Best Director (Yorgos Lanthimos)
Best Actress (Olivia Colman)
Best Supporting Actress (Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz)
Best Original Screenplay (Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara)
Best Costume Design (Sandy Powell)
Best Cinematography (Robbie Ryan)
Best Film Editing (Yorgos Mavropsaridis)
Guided by his (potentially too literal) playfulness with camera work, we view Yorgos Lanthimos’ construction of The Favourite, and everything it contains, with a clinical distance. Sobered of conventional character-audience empathy and intimacy, we find ourselves equipped to embrace the surrealism and demanded to reconfigure our relation as spectator with character and content. What is otherwise a narrative of sexual and power competitiveness between Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, winning the affections of the superb Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, becomes exponentially chaotic and disorderly at a pace that is both acclaimed and expected from Lanthimos’ films.
Lanthimos boasts his obscured, theatrical universe, our vision distorted by a fish-eye lens and very stylised mise en scène, and construes how we expect aristocracy and monarchy to be captured. We experience a disconnect between our expectations of a period film and Lanthimos’ reality, between convention and action and between camera and audience. We are, in watching, given the role of observer, to a comic exhibition of the eccentricity of people, or at least how Lanthimos imagines them.
metacritic score: 90
wasteland rating: 3.5/5
winner of Best Original Screenplay
winner of Best Costume Design
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) dir. Barry Jenkins
Best Supporting Actress (Regina King)
Best Adapted Screenplay (Barry Jenkins)
Best Original Score (Nicholas Britell)
The fiction of essayist and novelist James Baldwin translated into cinema would never be anything short of exceptional. Whilst so much of If Beale Street Could Talk’s excellence is indebted to its actors (Best Supporting Actress nominee Regina King as one notable exemplar), what succeeds in the novel-turned-film is its inexorable power in amplification. Barry Jenkins holds a camera and a microphone to one of the loudest voices of twentieth-century literature, and Baldwin’s vision is only strengthened as it harmonises with Jenkins’ ingenuity.
metacritic score: 87
wasteland rating: 4.5/5
winner of Best Supporting Actress (Regina King)
A Star is Born (2018) dir. Bradley Cooper
Best Actress (Lady Gaga)
Best Actor (Bradley Cooper)
Best Supporting Actor (Sam Elliott)
Best Adapted Screenplay (Eric Roth, Will Fetters & Bradley Cooper)
Best Cinematography (Matty Libatique)
Best Original Song (“Shallow” Music and Lyric by Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando and Andrew Wyatt)
Best Sound Mixing (Tom Ozanich, Dean Zupancic, Jason Ruder and Steve Morrow)
Bradley Cooper’s modern addition to the remake-trilogy of A Star Is Born attempts to reimagine the same pop-culture, Hollywood infected version of what is essentially a rags-to-riches narrative, and a love story between artists Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) and Ally Campana (Lady Gaga). Although its aesthetic is often glorious with its de-chained exploration of nightlife in early scenes and of the expansive Arizona desert, A Star Is Born does somehow fall short.
It has been criticised for its undeniable tone of music elitism, a tone so all-consuming that we are supposed to identify career differences as a major cause of the issues between country rocker Jackson Maine and popstar-in-the-making Ally. It seems that popstar Ally cannot succeed without her personal life falling into disarray, and that she can only spiritually connect with her more alternative partner Jackson once her career comes to a halt. It’s unclear whether or not we are supposed to believe that Ally is fated to a downward spiral the more she conquers the mainstream music industry, but it seems implied.
Maybe there are some problematic ideas of gendered success to unpack here, directorial perspectives as well as protagonistic. But because A Star Is Born is ultimately devoted to showcasing the powerhouse of talent that is Lady Gaga, it can be pardoned, and if not pardoned then overlooked, even if only to allow more time spent celebrating the unrelenting musical and acting talent of Gaga. This film should be viewed as a celebration of Gaga, her extremely successful film debut through which she effectively manoeuvres a rather uninspired plot and carries much, if not all, the excellence of the film.
After its initial ban, in the 1970s Weimar film Mädchen In Uniform (1931) (dir: Leontine Sagan) was rediscovered by feminist critics who categorised it as an early ‘coming out film’. The narrative follows: a Prussian, authoritarian regime in an all-girls school for families with aristocratic or military backgrounds becomes inhabited by Manuela (Hertha Thiele), the ‘new girl’, who becomes, much like her female peers, besotted with their governess, Fräulein von Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck). Although it is comic, exciting and entirely female in its cast, some critics condemned its reliance on tropes such as experimental sexuality, unserious homosexuality, demonstrating little more than sororal affection and silliness. The queer romance of the film is most clearly identified in the unique relationship Fräulein von Bernberg begins with Manuela, as they exchange kisses and Manuela is gifted a petticoat, much to the jealousy of the other girls. Though much of the film is stylised with great affection for their relationship, their romance is obscured by their dynamic: teacher and student, a relation that is (rightfully) no longer romanticised by critics but criticised as an imbalance of power and of exploitation. Furthermore, their romance isn’t always clear, as it is often interpreted as maternal affection. There is much to be said regarding how their relationship is framed within such an ambiguous dynamic, and how a similar ambiguity is manufactured in the context of the film at large: as a commentary on anti-authoritarianism.
Using an entirely female cast of teachers and students, Mädchen unusually offers a multifaceted spectrum of femininity, showing women as varied in behaviour, attitude, age and position in relation to each other. We can compare the physical affections between girls compared to the boundaries of teachers who act coldly and militantly in their severity. The young girls celebrate rising body culture: they laugh and enjoy the sex appeal of American film stars and romantic novels, popular culture and jazz. They stand for a pro-Western attitude, representing the young Weimar generation in progressive ideas. They unite to form an embodied celebration of affection and sexual openness, contrasting the context of the strict regime of their environment, and of course, critiquing the growing national socialism outside the film.
It’s important to note that romance between women became accepted in film before it became acceptable between men. However, this is not a feminist marvel. Unlike men’s homosexuality, women’s homosexuality was (and often still is) softened, or pardoned, for being sweet, sororal and unthreatening to anything serious. This clear homophobia and erasure of women’s homosexuality is also closely connected to the eroticised image of homosexual intimacy between women, seen in centuries of art and literature, even by the supposedly most prudish epochs (see Victorian writer Christina Rossetti’s suggestively lesbian poem Goblin Market). It seems, culturally, that deconstructing the monument of heteronormativity is less imposing, less damaging when it concerns women. This lends itself to such deeply rooted misogyny in how queer relationships between women are viewed, as erased of their validity under the guise of playful experimentation, or women viewed as sexed, affectionate creatures by nature. It seems it is men who are most instrumental to the ideas and preservations of sexuality and heteronormativity. In this forgotten place, in their liminal position, women’s sexuality is minor and discounted. Mädchen in Uniform attempts to expand this liminal space using the tool of ambiguity and complex power dynamics. It complicates female homosexuality even further than it already is using various hierarchical structures: woman and girl, teacher and student. Thus, it is often unclear how celebratory of queerness and homosexuality this film actually is, and if it isn’t, what does it celebrate instead?
Mädchen thematises and emphasises the role of affection and solidarity in the face of an authoritarian institute. Above its romantic narrative, there is a very real tension between regime and action, how the girls behave to combat their environment and how they behave in order to cope with it, as these behaviours are often one and the same. Perhaps their affection and queer behaviour are portrayed as merely reactive to, or at least highlighted by, the oppressive authoritarian ideas that govern their school, as homophobia is usually rife in authoritarian states.
Mädchen is anti-authoritarian, but perhaps it can be better defined as a critique of authoritarian practices. It articulates a very specific political tension between the right and left poles of thinking and action. The girls, as the title states, are in uniform, sharing a unanimous, unexpressive identity. This anti-progressive image contributes to other militant images that frequent the film. The school’s headmistress, Fräulein von Nordeck zur Nidden (Emilia Unda), is figured as representative of the older generation, and thereby held in tension with progressivism. Cast as the villain for her caricaturesque portrayal of Prussian, traditional values, Nidden is shot with expressionist shadows cast across her face, contrasting the lightness and clarity in which Manuela and the girls are filmed. This deliberate light vs dark imagery represents the new cinematic movement of New Objectivity, bidding farewell to expressionism as a mode of the past and for Mädchen, a symbol of anti-progressive values.
Some critics have disagreed that Mädchen is anti-authoritarian; it’s important to note that Mädchen’s producer Carl Froelich went on to produce Nazi propaganda films. Aside from this clearly problematic association, the film itself, irrespective of its crew, does create scepticism surrounding its presentation of anti-authoritarian ideas firsthand. By the end of the film, after some plot filler including a metatheatrical performance of romance Don Carlos and an attempted suicide, little has changed by the time we arrive at the credits. The school’s regime is still in practice even after Manuela tries to commit suicide by throwing herself down a stairwell, symbolic of hierarchy and mobility in itself. Equally, throughout the film, we are given a humanisation of Bernberg, a romanticised teacher complicit in an institute of authoritarianism.
If one is to take anything away from Mädchen, other than its comedy and its basic celebration of sexually liberated women in all their variety and queerness, it is to note that homophobia is a crucial aspect of fascism. Mädchen closely predates the epoch in which male homosexuality entered the rhetoric of national socialism’s ideas of ‘man’ and masculinity, and homophobia remains one of the most weaponised aspects of patriarchal, oppressive states today. But perhaps, As Richard W. McCormick has said, these anti-democratic forces’ “defeat in this film, however momentary, is one that should cheer us all”.
In compiling this A-Z of female directors and their films, my measure of their credibility being only their average score from Metacritic’s algorithm, problems became manifest: taking the average reception of women’s films and summarising it as their critical consensus, as one example. Although this list is intentionally celebratory of women and their art, it is quite precarious in its function as it inevitably highlights women’s cultural deviation and separation from male directors and their work. But nevertheless, here it is.
It’s telling that most of the films listed are from the twenty-first-century, some are co-directed with men, and all are combatants in a system that explicitly, albeit ambiguously, omits women from directing. Only during the recent epoch of modern film can we see the rise of critical acclaim for women in the director’s seat. Naively, we might choose to believe this lends itself to the simple deduction that more women must be directing, that in the twenty-first-century opportunities are far more open and multiple, or even more naively, we might believe these opportunities have always been present and women before simply ‘chose not to’ take them. Here, it is worth noting that when I speak of these women, they are of course majoritively white, for there are far more complex and systemic exclusions at present for female filmmakers of colour.
More cynically (and more truthfully) the same number of women are directing as prior to the twenty-first-century but perhaps now they are (rarely and selectively) given a bigger budget, thus a higher chance at commercial success, meaning they are often paid more attention critically and commercially from the industry. Yet even this is a rose-tinted vision of reality, for women are still routinely overlooked in creative direction, especially in the oligarchical, masculine system of filmmaking. We are still the audience to Man and his camera, Man and technology as two conflicting yet collaborative monuments of modernity, leaving no room for women and their visions except in front of the camera.
This list fails to be comprehensive, the alphabetical structure is a simplistic way to organise women’s films although it does, of course, naturally exclude fantastic directors of the same lettered surname as those listed. I think this list functions as a microcosm of the industry as it is represented at large, its algorithmic, commerical, fast-paced and bite-sized way in which the internet presents us with women’s film and its criticisms. Women’s films, and by this I mean their directors, are routinely subcategorised, subaltern and subdued. I am by no means trying to even begin surfacing the problems with modern cinema today regarding gender and binary identities that cinema seems to instrumentally reinforce (often with sincerity, as celebratory for example), but here it is, a not-so-comprehensive list of magnificent female directors and their highest rated films.
A. Gillian Armstrong ‘Little Women’ (1994)
B. Kathryn Bigelow ‘The Hurt Locker’ (2009)
Score: 94 (note: the highest rated film by a female director on Metacritic with 94)
C. Sofia Coppola ‘Lost in Translation’ (2003)
Score: 89 (note: the 8th highest rated film by a female director on Metacritic)
D. Claire Denis ’35 Shots of Rum’ (2009)
Score: 92 (note: the second highest rated film by a female director on Metacritic)
E. Nora Ephron ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ (1993)
Score: 71 (note: the fifth highest grossing film by a female director on Metacritic)
F. Valerie Faris ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ (2006)
Score: 80 (note: co-directed with a man)
G. Greta Gerwig ‘Lady Bird’ (2017)
Score 94: (special note: second highest rated film, directed by a man or woman, of 2017, according to Metacritic)
H. Courtney Hunt ‘Frozen River’ (2008)
J. Tamara Jenkins ‘The Savages’ (2007)
K. Karyn Kusama ‘The Invitation’ (2016)
L. Kátia Lund ‘City of God’ (2002)
Score: 79 (note: co-directed with a man)
M. Lucrecia Martel ‘The Headless Woman’ (2009)
N. Mira Nair ‘The Namesake’ (2007)
P. Nina Paley ‘Sita Sings the Blues’ (2010)
Score: 94 (joint highest rated film by a female director on Metacritic.)
R. Kelly Reichardt ‘Old Joy’ (2006)
S. Shari Springer Berman ‘American Splendor’ (2003)