Cross-Post: Cannes 2012: The Stories Aren’t By Women but They’re About Women

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by Sasha Stone
May 20, 2012 12:00 PM
4 Comments
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It’s hard not to notice sexism when it is everywhere. After dealing with a person named Chris for three years trying to find lodging in Cannes I was stunned to find out that Chris was a woman. I’d assumed she was a man and all of this time I thought I was communicating with a man. I trusted “him” that he wouldn’t rip me off, that he knew what he was doing — and once I discovered “he” was a “she” I had to rethink my expectations. Suddenly I worried whenever the wi-fi went out that “she” wouldn’t know how to fix it.

And then there is the matter of the movie blogosphere dominated almost completely by men. They talk mostly to each other, care mostly what one another thinks, and women are rarely included in the conversation. For the honey badger of it, I often butt in to the male tête-à-têtes but that is how you get labeled a bitch on Twitter. The women in our field of work have to play the nicely demure game, never ruffle too many feathers and all of that. I am thinking of making up t-shirts for us women in the business: “Cunts Unite.” That might not go over too well.

Recently, a petition was circulated that upwards of 800 [now over 1700] people have already signed, taking Cannes to task for not including enough films by women directors. Okay, no films by women directors in the main competition category. This offended me too until I started seeing some of those films. Lo and behold, the rarest of all things: movies about women that didn’t have anything to do with the men they were sleeping with or marrying. All of the films I’ve seen so far in competition have had strong female storylines. Only one hasn’t and it still had many well-drawn female supporting players.

These films so far have wiped up the floor with all nine of the Oscar contenders last year, save The Help. In fact, watching these films so far here in Cannes one gets a much more refreshing look at women’s place in the world — wow, there are writers and directors who do consider women to be actual thinking people with motivations beyond getting married.

To that end, one has little choice but tip one’s hat to this fest in that regard — women are represented here more than I’ve seen them represented at any film film festival I’ve ever attended. Yes, it would be nice if one of those films had been directed by a woman — but if it had, would anyone have taken it as seriously? We already know that if you are female novelist and you write a book about a female heroine you are never going to get the label “the great American novel.” The only “great American novels” are written by men. Just like the only universal stories in film are often by and about men. The Oscar contenders last year about the male ego, once again, repairing itself from a damaged state so that the man can go back to saving the world.

Two films I saw today are about female characters. Remarkably, neither film depends on a man to complete things. Male characters are in the film but their roles are less important to the overall story than the females. The first, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a revelation. Not since Tatum O’Neil followed around after father Ryan in Paper Moon has a girl actor exploded off the screen like Quvenzhané Wallis, the bold and formidable hero of this inexplicably brilliant film. I am not sure how its co-writer and director Benh Zeitlin came up with it, how that muse delivered this piece of work, but to me, it is right up there with the best feature debuts by the best filmmakers — we’re talking Orson Welles, Steven Soderbergh, Kathryn Bigelow, Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee. Here is a brand new voice, a visionary who is not afraid of the obscure, and dares to carve a wholly new way of telling a story — with symbolism and poetry — brazen and unclean, not politically correct but the raw and whole truth.

The film is about Hush Puppy (Wallis) who is being raised by her ramshackle of a father — they live in the backwoods trash heaps of Louisiana, killing chickens they keep for food, sometimes cooking cat food for dinner, pulling crawfish out of the ocean and eating them in piles. It’s a precarious existence, living up to its name: these are wild beasts who don’t follow society’s rules but manage to make do outside of them. So much happens between Hush Puppy and her father it would be unfair to recount them here, but suffice it to say he does what every single parent knows they must do: prepare their child for the big bad world after their gone.

One of the ways Zeitlin, and co-writer Lucy Alibar disarm you is with sentences you can’t walk past. They stop you right in your tracks. When we first see glimpses of Hush Puppy’s long since vanished mother she is described as someone who could turn on heat just by walking into the room — literally, turn on the flame underneath the pan. We see just her lower torso as she shoots an alligator — its blood smeared all over her ample thigh. This was a woman, all right.

Little Hush Puppy is being taught John Connor style how to toughen up for the coming apocalypse. She’ll have to be tough, her daddy tells her. She’ll have to be a beast to conquer the wilderness. His one request, “don’t let me die plugged into the wall.” He wanted to be put in a boat and “lit on fire.” I’ll make the assumption now that you won’t see a better female performance all year than the one Wallis brings. Yeah, Oscar is a long shot. Tatum O’Neil was wrapped up in the star system already and Paper Moon was a fairly conventional film. Beasts is anything but conventional.

Mostly I liked the idea that the story turned on the inner life of its heroine, a girl, imagine that. Who will she be, what will she have to survive? The final scenes are some of the most powerful images anyone has ever put on screen, coming from the place that howls through the soul of a brilliant, ballsy artist.

After the movie ended, I couldn’t really catch my breath. It was literally taken from me. I had to wait through the credits in hopes that I eventually could. When the credits finished rolling the crowd applauded once again, loudly, enthusiastically, with shouts throughout the theater. It didn’t get a standing ovation but it came mighty close.

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More: Cannes Film Festival, Lucy Alibar, Sexism

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4 Comments

  • BC | May 21, 2012 3:36 PMReply

    I do not understand the point of the first paragraph of this and why are you so worried that a woman would not be able to fix wifi? Seems so contradictory to the whole concept of this site.

  • Bes | May 21, 2012 12:04 PMReply

    Yes the Editors note is needed. Just look at the long history of Hollywood sexism! Hollywood has many problems when it comes to women. One is images of women in film. One is not having women developed stories so authentic women will have a voice. One is calling crap like Sucker Punch, and Girl With the Dragon Tattoo which were written, cast, directed, costumed, edited, filmed etc by men and which women audiences didn't want to watch "women's content". One is not producing content women want to watch. One is only producing biographies about women who work in the sex trade. One problem is improving conditions for women workers in media does not improve entertainment prospects for women audiences. Movies about women characters made by men have a talking dog quality to them and grate on me on a primal level. Sure I've seen a few talking dog movies I liked, but I have grown tired of them and I don't want to see any more. Hollywood has acted like a bunch of sexist idiots regarding women audiences and women characters. So they should not be surprised when people call them idiots or point out their idiotic failings.

  • Tom | May 20, 2012 5:53 PMReply

    I have to agree with Stewart... no need for the "editor's note," especially when Ms. Stone says as much herself.

    I'm not sure what has been hailed as "the Great American Novel" recently, since I don't read as much as I should. However, the greatest (IMO) was written by a woman with a female heroine: To Kill a Mockingbird... major oversight.

    I'm surprised that Ms. Stone didn't have an issue with Hush Puppy being taught by her father (a man). What better of a slogan for a militant organization than "Cunts Unite"?

  • Stewart | May 20, 2012 12:44 PMReply

    Why the "editor's note" at the end? Aren't we able to think and decide for ourselves? Did I really need for you to remind me of that point? What an insult! I strongly resent being treated like a dummy.

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