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Womens Cinema And National Identity Film Studies Essay

Women’s cinema is mainly considered films directed by women as they have a different perspective than that of men. But other behind-the-camera jobs performed by women such as cinematography and screenwriting also come under women’s cinema. The first woman to ever make a film was Alice Guy-Blaché in 1896, after which approximately 700 films were made by women in France and the United States. In the 1920s the Hay’s Code for filmmakers was introduced. This was a formal set of conventional rules that made it very difficult to innovate in film making, and female directors found it very difficult to make more personalized films. (Kay, Karyn and Gerald Peary WOMEN AND THE CINEMA: A CRITICAL ANTHOLOGY Dutton, 1977. Xvi, 464 p) Although films were made by women very early on, the incorporation of feminism and its study was introduced much later. The study of women in cinema is often segregated into two categories. These are the study of films made by women, generally and films with feminist objectives that focus mainly on the problems if women, portrayed in cinematic form. Since the 1960s feminist films have maintained a certain commercial, yet art house production style of movie making. While the aforementioned films reflect many female ideologies, they still try to be seen as mainstream cinema. (Gentile, Mary C. FILM FEMINISMS: THEORY AND PRACTICE. Wesport: Greenwood Press, 1985. 182 p) Talking about general films made by women, they are often distinguished from each other according to the presentation of the film as a whole. This varies according to the outlook of the director of the film. Another distinguishing factor is the culture portrayed in the film and the aspect of life introduced in the storyline.( Rosen, Marjorie. POPCORN VENUS: WOMEN, MOVIES & THE AMERICAN DREAM 1973 416 p).

National identity is a form of cultural identification given to the people of a country. (Charles Short, (1879). A Latin Dictionary. Entry for nation) In the world ethnic and religious segregation occurs after the national identification of a person. While ethnicity and religious diversity form the bulk of national trademarks, the question of minority still gives people the benefit of the doubt. National identity is a judicial matter with complex authoritative aspects, but sociologically it is the distinctiveness from foreigners and its effect on a national and international society. Language is a crucial and integral part of national identity, as most countries have their own local dialects understood by the natives. But the English Language, as well as a few others has grown to become a part of almost every country’s common language. But still the difference in pronunciation as well as the accent is clearly noticeable in all, and a Spanish man or an Indian man speaking in English will be clearly identified as such.(National identity By Anthony D. Smith)

Cinema has always promoted culture and historical understanding in the citizens of a country. It is a media source that is a household necessity in this day and age, and in every country films are made in the local languages to portray the lifestyle and the identity of a country. (Braudy and Cohen, Film Theory and Criticism, Sixth Edition, Oxford University Press, 2004, page 827)

Gender bias has now been completely exiled from modern day society, as the feminist movements have established certain equality between men and women. Gone are the days, when only men could get admissions to medical schools or the women had to stand outside a classroom and take notes while the professor gave a lecture as they weren’t allowed inside the classroom. Today women are accepted to be able to perform any job a man can, in fact it has become something of a custom in the West for career-driven women to lead independent fulfilling lives without the necessity of a husband.

Psychologically men and women are programmed differently, while exceptions are always present, male and female thought and behavior patterns are very distinctive from each other. It has been observed that men have a more empirical thought process, women are emotional in nature, the latter is more in touch with their feelings and are more intellectual than men in the emotional mindset. Men are physically stronger than women and have natural protective instincts towards the weak. While men see their physical strength as a matter of pride, women have a natural interest in domesticity and nurturing others. These are generalizations and of course vary from individual to individual. Women find it easier to bond with other women and connect on an emotional level, while men prefer to lave things alone and are more helpful than sympathetic. It is a universal fact that women love to watch romantic emotional movies where they can relate to the lead characters and the intricacies of the complex characters, men on the other hand are more visual. They like movies with action or violence and are more interested in visual art work than in meaningful dialogue. (Sue Thornham (ed.), Feminist Film Theory. A Reader, Edinburgh University Press 1999)

Women’s cinema focuses on the problems faced by women, feminism and the perspective of women of life and the world around them. (Erens, Patricia. “Introduction” Issues in Feminist Film Criticism 1990)

Feminist film theory is a critical view of films and their feminist elements. Films are critically analyzed and any underlining notions of feminism are keenly observed. It was during the second wave of feminism that feminist film theory was born. As new theories on feminism were being discovered these were applied to analyze films. In the United States in the 1970s films portrayed the role of women in society and their duties. They were shown in movies as society viewed them. From these movies, feminist film theory gauged the stereotypes of women in the culture, their influence on the overall community and the extent to which they were allowed to act in films and the types of roles they were allowed to act in. (Erens, Patricia. “Introduction”)

At the same time in England films were analyzed according to critical theory. The perspective of critical theory was one of psychoanalysis, the Marxist theory and the study of cultural language (semiotics). Critical theory examines culture and society from a sociological viewpoint. Marxist theory of the classes and the psychological analysis of characters are taken into account. Analysis of a film usually consists of discovering the meaning of the film’s story and the view of the world it shows as well as the sexist view the film takes. This theory was adopted by the Americans in the 1980s. (McHugh, Kathleen and Vivian Sobchack. “Introduction: Recent Approaches to Film Feminisms.” Signs)

Watching films is an act of entertainment, but the underlying moral of a story is a lesson learned as well as the film shows it. This view was argued by Christian Metz in From the Imaginary Signifier: Identification, Mirror.

Feminist film critics often comment on the male predominance on the structure of a film. For example, the protagonist of the film remains a man who has the power to give or take importance from the female characters of the film. The woman either inspires fear or love or hatred in the hero or she in some way hampers his progress drawing attention to her, in her own right her character has little or no merit and its only objective is that related to the advancement of the male character. Laure Mulvey in her essay on Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema takes this view further. She says that women’s role in films is to improve its visuals. Men like to look at beautiful women on screen and movies fulfill this desire by giving females superficial and voyeuristic roles in films to attract male viewership. Scenes in a film are shown as such so that the women have sexually very explicit roles and very little else relevance to the film. Muvley also regards the spectatorship of films in a mainly voyeuristic capacity. She states that there are three perceptions of a movie that identify the female character as a sexual inducement in the film. The first is the way in which the male character(s) of the film view the woman, the second is the way in which they react to her appearance and the third is the way they respond to the woman, their reaction may range from subtle looks of appreciation to innuendo and outright sexually responsive behavior which makes the male audience identify with the male character onscreen and see the woman as a sexual enticement.

Mulvey provides a solution for this problem as the destruction of film visuals that have a strongly voyeuristic objective. As the female character is distanced from the male viewer the role of a woman in society will also shift in purpose. The concept of male dominance is only increased by these movies and without them equality between the sexes will be a much more understandable concept. (Blechner, M. J. (1998) Maleness and masculinity. 'Contemporary Psychoanalysis,' 34:597–613)

It is a fact that women and men identify with the characters they see in films. Most films in fact set a trend or objective for them to follow. Women not only accept their role in society as being the one shown in movies they see that as their ambition and purpose in life. Bell Hooks, siding with African American women, urged them not to condone the behavioral fashions set in movies for black women. Black women are stereotyped with clichéd roles, gestures and character styles which these women feel the need to follow, in real life having seen it on the big screen.

Janet Bergstorm takes the view that women can identify with the male characters and the men with the female characters of a film in her article “Enunciation and Sexual Difference” (1979), she focuses on Sigmund Freud’s ideas on bisexuality.

Carol Clover in her book ‘Men Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film’ writes that in a horror movie the male audience is quite capable of recognizing with the female character caught up in the horror situation. They understand the narrative and can experience a certain amount of the terror expressed by the onscreen actor regardless of the gender.

Laura Mulvey goes on to say that there are two roles a female lead can take in a film. The first being the conventional woman with little character of her own with just enough on screen power to complement the male lead, the other is a newly developed role of a female protagonist who is capable of character depth and is portrayed as the main character not a sexual distraction for the men. The latter is identifiable by with the entire demographic audience.

Marjorie Rosen and Molly Heskell both worked to help change the role of women in cinema, both in documentaries and narrative mainstream media. The growing strength of female viewership was seen as a positive step in this direction. Feminist issues could be more widely shown in cinema and be seen by concerned parties welcoming this change. More true to life women were to be shown in movies so that women could in general identify with the characters they saw. While this was a positive step, most feminist acknowledged the fact that to change the view of women in films as an object of desire with little or no other value would only change when society’s outlook of cinema changed into something more than as a form entertainment, into a media source of information and a wider publicity of the problems faced in society. (Gallop, J. (1993). "The Daughter's Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis", Cornell University Press)

Craig’s wife was a feature film released in 1936 that has as its protagonist a dictatorial woman who marries a man for his money and then uses him for her own means. The woman in question is revealed as a tyrannical manipulator who controls every aspect of her life with ruthless efficiency. She slowly alienates her husband and all those around her. Her husband who is at first very much in love with her suffers greatly at her hands and it is in the end that she comes to a sticky end. She has a deep and many layered character and her coldness is driven by her pitiful background, so while you hate her actions in the film you at some point sympathize with her.

Dorothy Arzner is the maker of the film Craig’s wife. This film was made during the time Hays Code was in action. While Mrs. Craig’s character is shown as a woman who wrecks her own home and exploits all the people who love her, you do not watch her go about entirely without empathy. She has childhood scars that contribute a great deal to her personality. Dorothy has tried her best to make the woman relatable and identifiable by the audience and not come off as an out and out villain. Her marriage is shown to be flawed even without her having tried to damage it, and while the dialogue is scripted against her character; the audience is given a chance to pity with her at times.

Dorothy Arzner was a film director in the early 1900s. It was very rare at that time for a woman to be working in the film industry in such a capacity. Her first ambition was to become a doctor, but after the end of World War I she decided otherwise. She began working as a screenwriter and then worked as an editor, at which she earned a name for herself. She had been employed by Paramount Pictures and edited over fifty films. But it was in 1927 after she had threatened to leave Paramount to go to work for their rivals at Columbia was she given a directorial position. Her first venture as a director ‘Fashions for women’ was a financial success. Being a proclaimed homosexual made it even harder for her to work in the industry and it was only remarkable talent for film making that made her such a success. She was the first director to use the boom mike technique which allowed actors to move freely in front of the camera. Arzner is known for her female characters. She showed free-spirited women in her films that were independent and capable in their own right. She did not show male protagonists with women only as accessories in the movies, and improved the feminist view of movies.

Hard, Fast and Beautiful was released in 1951 and is the story of a girl who is a talented tennis player and of her rise to fame. The main protagonist is an 18 year old girl Florence, and the story of the choices she makes and the people in her life. The lack of ambition shown in the female characters is fairly obvious. While the girl is very talented and obviously enjoys playing tennis her greatest ambition is to marry her fiancé and settle down into domesticity. The other female lead is Florence’s mother Milly who is greedy and manipulative and her only aim is life is to have more money to spend and a more lavish lifestyle. Although the men in this movie have a less significant role than the women, the message of the film is clear, ambition is bad for women and wanting fame and success points towards a debauched and corrupt soul in women. The director Ida Lupino while not entirely a feminist was instead a humanitarian. Her work was more about reflecting on the morality of people than the fight for women’s rights in society. Although Milly’s character was driven and over achieving, it was in some aspects slightly recognizable and pitiable. She was the extreme form of an ambitious woman, and the female audience while not finding her likeable couldn’t disregard her as a detestable character as well.

Ida Lupino was by the 1950s one of the only two women in Hollywood having directed a talkie. She is known as both an actor and a director. While Ida was by all appearances an American actor, she was in fact born in a British family. Her father was an entertainer in his own right. With a face and an arsenal of expressions which made her ideal for the roles of many a troubled young girl, she played many tough-minded characters. Lupino was even famous for directing films which were later acclaimed for the complexity of the female protagonists in them. She was called by Martin Scorsese as “resilient with a remarkable empathy for the fragile and heartbroken.” Lupino’s penchant for showing unorthodox issues in her films both shocked and awed the era of Old Hollywood, she broached topics such as unwed mothers and bigamy and brought them into the light. She strived towards spreading awareness among people and evoked both empathy and pity with her characters. Her female characters although not as free spirited as the ones the feminists wanted to see, nevertheless had a certain aura of strength that made them very memorable.

Germany, Pale Mother was released in 1980 and is narrated by a woman and is the story of her parents’ life. It is very literal as the story is entirely that of Helene and Hans and their life together and apart, but the underlying metaphor is ever present in the characters themselves. Helene and Hans fall in love but their marriage is disrupted by long separation. It is set in the time of the Nazis rise to power and the effects this had on the everyday life of our protagonists. Hans goes off to fight in the army and Helene is left alone at home, having to face numerous tribulations. She gives birth to her daughter during an air raid; her home is burned down by the American G. I’s . She is tortured and all her teeth are removed, she is raped and beaten and eventually suffers from severe facial paralysis. Her character is that of a strong woman who perseveres against all odds to survive, her story is a reflection of the hardships faced by Germany and the misery of the pain inflicted upon humanity. She is an enduring creature of inner strength who tries to make the best of a terrible situation. The storyline moves from grim to morbid as the story progresses, while the film has its moments of lightness it is overall a very profound experience of the human condition. Her pain, loss and suffering is very palpable and can be felt by the audience in its entirety. The crumble of Hitler’s regime forced many Germans to face harsh living conditions and Helene’s story is an embodiment of that fact. The situation in Germany is displayed in all its gruesome reality and is very difficult to watch, but the ups and downs of Helene’s life have you rooting for her when she decides against the suicide, her faith in a better life makes her struggle all the more touching and matter-of-fact. (Crowther, Bosley. "New York Times: Hard, Fast and Beautiful". NY Times March 18, 1984)

Helma Sanders-Brahms has caused heated debates on the content of her films. She has addressed a wide-array of social issues in her movies and is known best for her work in Germany, Pale Mother and Shirin’s Wedding. She has in her films addressed issues ranging from her own parents’ involvement in Hitler’s regime to mental illnesses and is a feminist in her own right. Her films portray women of strength, integrity and love of life in even the harshest of conditions.

Daughters of the Dust is with its unconventional narrative, its abundance of feeling and very expressive visuals an exciting watch. It is the story of Africans migrating to the new world, and is being told by dead ancestors and an unborn child who are present at the scene in spirit. The mixture of English with African and French dialect is while confusing in places does not frustrate the viewer overly much. The family is shown as a single group with not much room for individual character growth. The emotional journey of the travelers is very thought provoking and inspiring, it takes the viewer into the film and the emotional upheavals can be felt by the audience. The expression of the film is rudimentary and lies on a simple portrayal of the people, the story line is pretty much nonexistent but this doesn’t detract from the richness of the film. The family is an entity that has a certain sense of patriotism, and the pain of leaving their homeland is very realistically shown. The film has very strong feminist roots. It shows the spiritual ordeal suffered by the women as they prepare to leave their soil behind. This deeply religious group of people feels the connection to their land more strongly than people with no strong ties to their origins. The movie dazzles with its strong emotional quality as well as its spell binding visuals so that even at times when one loses track of the situation, it is not exasperating.

Point Break directed by Kathryn Bigelow in 1991 is a fast paced action film. It is full of violence and seasoned FBI agents who have seen every ugly crime and its consequences. The female lead in the film is a criminal bent on seducing the male protagonist who is the law enforcement official. On the side of feminist film theory this film is a classic stereotype in which the presence of the female is to encourage the feeling of voyeurism among the male audience and to attract men to watch this film as the woman flaunts herself on screen in a blatantly sexual attempt on the agent. It was expected that Kathryn Bigelow being a female director would incorporate certain feminist aspects in her female characters but this was not the case. She opted for the more commercial sequence of showing off a beautiful woman onscreen with no real character depth and very little purpose. Although the film lacked direction and coherence in some places it nevertheless established Bigelow as a successful action direction, with a talent for testosterone fueled film making. For Bigelow film making is not about breaking gender roles. She believes in broadening social horizons, she is not known for subtlety in film making. She moved from mindlessly entertaining action movies to coarse raw subjects of war and grief in her films and has dealt with both with considerable aplomb.

Romance is a very sexually explicit film with nudity a very common factor. It is the story of a woman in search of her sexuality. She is confused and troubled by her sexual ineptitude and her wish for fulfillment. She experiments with different styles and techniques but remains indifferent. Meanwhile she and her boyfriend start expecting, and she goes through a new phase in life. The film is both gruesome and downright disgusting in some places and while the storyline remains interesting ,some of the scenes are very off-putting. The struggles she faces as a pregnant woman and the delivery of her child are both shown in much detail. The film has shocked and intrigued its viewers, the casting choices were both unconventional and scandalous. But while the film itself should not be boring, it is the girl’s never ending struggle to find herself that gets monotonous and dry towards the end. The viewer loses focus of her initial goal and doesn’t really want to be reminded of it. Catherine Breillat focuses mainly on a discovery of female sexuality. Her main protagonists are women in search of their own sexual preferences and the discoveries they make in life. although her films tend to be exhibitionist in nature her material is also thoughtful and well written. Her focus remains on the trials and tribulations of women and leaves the men to serve only a purpose in the film. She has in her movies neatly turned the tables on the voyeuristic examples of gender bias in mainstream cinema. Her movies are the exact opposite of male dominating films. She has broadened the horizons for many filmmakers to experiment with taboo topics in films. Her work is scandalous to say the least but she remains steadfast to her goal of spreading a sexual awareness among women. The issues she addresses are emotionally taut and most of her characters walk a very thin line between pleasure and pain.

Ratcatcher released in 1999 is set in 1973 Glasgow. It tells the story of a young boy James who while playing with his friend Ryan witnesses him dying of an accident and does nothing to help him. He doesn’t reveal this to anybody else and nobody finds out about it. James hangs out with a gang of older guys, who are involved in drinking and smoking and take him under their wing, instilling in James the same habits. His home is poverty ridden with a drunken father and sympathetic mother and a slew of sisters. He is not only frustrated with his life but dreams of escaping it. A village girl offers a slight spark of romance and humor in the otherwise slightly dreary film. The movie shows the life of Glasgow in the 1970s and does a very good job of it. It is engaging in its simplicity of character. But the women in the film have been given minimalistic roles with very little purpose. They are either the irritants in James’ life or help him progress, beyond that the focus is not on the women. Lynne Ramsay has delved deeply into the provincial life and the young boy’s need for more and better is very relatable. James discovers newly built luxury houses near his own and frequently visits one. He sits there and dreams about a different life and lets his imagination wander. The innocence of the young mind is the primary focus of this film and has been shown very aptly.

Women’s cinema is a reflection of the integration of a culture. Keenly observing the differences in women’s cinema of different nations shows us exactly what societal rules prevail there. France for example has a highly explicit and exhibitionist society where sexual love is the prevailing topic. It is discussed in depth as well as contributes largely in the daily life. French people are known for their experimental ways and the discovery of sexuality in different ways. Other countries such as the United States and England boast of a highly integrated society. But the film culture that prevail in these countries are sadly lacking in artistic vision. Commercialism is gregariously popular and is endorsed by the majority. Women and men conform to atypical roles that vary little with time. (Turner, Graeme, 1994, "Whatever Happened to National Identity?")

The national identity are the cultural birthmarks we bear, they are personality traits developed based on the nationality we recognize as our own. The media plays a large part in the persuasion or dissuasion of culture. Be it distortion of the current lifestyle into something more evolved and blasé, or be it a return to origins cinema is the key helping factor. It is not only accepted as a trendsetter but also is naively thought of as the guidance required by society to change. The power of women’s cinema cannot be diminished. It liberates the women to showcase their own way of thinking and address the issues they feel need to be shown.( Harper, Douglas (November 2001). "Nation".)

To preserve a country’s national identity its cinema must be controlled. the power of film must be used wisely. In most eastern countries a steady rise of westernization has begun. This is mainly due to the elitist lifestyle and free thinking society portrayed by movies. This has caused a change in trends to a more pseudo-west mind set. Apparel, accent and even music preferences are being copied. We must strive to preserve our own culture to be recognized as our own nation and not a flimsy copy of another.

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