June 4, 2008
With the hustle and bustle of daily life, I sometimes forget to listen to the little girl inside. She whispers, “I want to be a film director when I grow up.”
Several days ago, I saw a curious red balloon dancing in the rain. It gently rose and fell with the wind. I immediately ran outside to take a picture. Why? What is inspiring about a lonely red balloon?
When I took a moment to listen to my little girl inside me, she reminded me of the little French movie from 1956: Le Ballon Rouge by Albert Lamorisse. It’s about a little boy who befriends a red balloon and travels with it all about Paris for a day. And in the end, he flies away from a group of bullies who’ve popped his friend the balloon, clutching the balloon’s balloon friends who’ve flown over to play.
That’s a simple premise for a very lovely movie about friendship and imagination. When I was young, and even today, it spoke to me about the power of will and make believe. And where there’s a will, there’s a movie. I wanted to tell the stories created in my mind with much the same simplicity. I became a filmmaker and made two short films with very little dialogue and lots of fanciful imagery.
As I grew older, I realized that so few films spoke to me in the same way as Le Ballon Rouge had. There are many reasons for this: dialogue is often obvious and overstated, tropes exhaustively explored in films marketed at me and other twenty-something women are superficial, etc. Increasingly over the years, I have felt excluded from mainstream cinema because I have felt that so much of what happens on the inside of a character is exploited on screen. Additionally, the roles of women in these movies are marginalized: female characters are either sexy or matronly, but are rarely neither or both.
“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly.” Laura Mulvey points out in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema” that fictional cinema has a long-standing tradition of falling in line with the male phallocentric gaze: filmmakers have reflected male dominion, which has been at large in the world, in their movies.
“The paradox of phallocentrism in all its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world. An idea of woman stands as lynch pin to the system: it is her lack that produces the phallus as a symbolic presence, it is her desire to make good the lack that the phallus signifies.” To me this means that men want women to be powerless, but it is female submission to this desire that makes that power all the more relevant. If we women said “No!” and “Fuck you!” more often, we’d minimize this phallocentricism…in theory.
We are obsessed with the phallus in human society, today and historically. Swords, guns, buildings and rocket ships all make use of this physical presence, one that is outward and potent. The vagina on the other hand is inward and secretive. How could imagery in motion pictures possibly reflect this? In truth, there are few that do.
There Will Be Blood, the 2007 Oscar-nominated loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, works on this level of contempt for the female and castration of her power. Filled with flat, dry landscapes, one cannot miss the enormous erections of phallic oil towers and the seminal gushes that emerge there from. And yet Sinclair was sympathetic to the plight of the common female prostitute, as much as he was the working man. Gone is his socialist message. In the only scene in the movie that does depict a prostitute, she is heard but not seen. And there is no supporting imagery in the film that makes a case for her struggle. She and her vagina are sidelined.
How can I love the movies when they so blatantly offend me by castrating the presence of women?
I love the movies because every so often there is a little gem that comes along and speaks to me. The red balloon represents for me my vagina on screen, you see. It gets blown about and still follows the one sensitive person to whom it is instinctively drawn. “Look at me,” it says. “Love me.” Meanwhile, a gang of bullies thrusts after it and tries to pop it by throwing stones.
In 1993, Jane Campion made The Piano wherein she ties a female character’s identity to an instrument. I particularly like the scene in which Harvey Keitel, lusting after Holly Hunter, finds a hole in her stockings as she plays her piano. He pokes the hole with a stubby finger. Later on, Hunter’s own finger is cut off in an horrific instance of spousal reprimand. If the finger is meant to be a phallic image in the visual language of the film, then Hunter has been castrated. There’s also an unusual shot of the back of Hunter’s head wherein the camera tracks into her neatly-wound bun. This is the filmmaker asking the viewer to ask, “What’s this character thinking?” I think this entire movie is Campion’s way of exacerbating the tendency of cinema to take away all the power from women, including their right to keep secrets.
And last year in 2007, Adrienne Shelly’s film Waitress was released posthumously. The film’s female lead bakes pies and the pies stand for her secret emotions: she doesn’t want to be pregnant so she makes “Bad Baby Quiche.” At one point, she considers making a pie with a banana in the center. Wait! “Hold the banana,” she says and takes it out of the vaginal center of the pie. (I love this movie!)
Words cannot express my relief at witnessing a film about a woman who rejects the imposed obligation of motherhood and who embraces her own sexuality in the process. And yet she says to her lover, “I don’t want you to save me.” (I love this movie!)
Last week the movie Sex and the City was released and did big box office numbers; in fact, it had the largest opening weekend for a movie targeted at women, who statistically don’t rush out to the theatres on opening weekends. I liked this movie. But unfortunately, the female characters still reflect the male gaze that has created them. Carrie Bradshaw may have a new big closet, but it is a gift from a wealthy, powerful man. In an episode of the television series, Bradshaw likened this man to the Chrysler Building. She enables him to be so by assuming the passive role in their relationship. He is the skyscraper to her walk-in closet. (This only works for me because it seems to work for both of them.)
The little girl in me wanted to grow up to be the first woman ever to win an Academy Award for Best Director – maybe she still will. But I’ll have to do it on my terms with my women characters and my red balloon clutched in my small, chubby hand.