It was just before noon on Labor Day, the last day of the Telluride Film Festival, and heaps of passholders were crowded into the Town Park in Telluride for the big passholder Labor Day Picnic, the second of two big feed parties the Telluride Film Festival throws for its passholders. Storm clouds hovered threateningly, but they were nowhere near as threatening as the clouds hovering on the brows of some of the eight women called there to put on a panel for the fest attendees. The panel topic: "Is There a Woman Behind Every Good Movie? The Gender Shift in the Film World."
An hour or so earlier, panelist Tamara Jenkins, director of The Savages, which sneaked at the fest, had gone off on a tangent during her Conversation with Juno director Jason Reitman over at the Courthouse about this very panel, and how being asked to participate in panels on women in film always makes her feel like she's on the "special olympics" panel. "It's either, oh, look, you made a FILM! Isn't that cute," she drolled in a cutsie "let's talk to the baby like it's an idiot" voice or, "You GO, girl" as she thrust her fists in the air. She laughed about it, but the annoyance wasn't a put on. She joked about all the implications of being labeled a "female filmmaker" rather than just a filmmaker ("Tell us, Tamara -- what's it like to direct a film ... while wearing a BRA?") but she made it clear that given her druthers, she'd far prefer that her gender wasn't an issue at all.
A while later, Jenkins was milling about in front of the platform schmoozing with the seven other female filmmakers who had been persuaded to participate in the panel: Diablo Cody (screenwriter of Juno); Tannishtha Chatterjee (Brick Lane); Alexandra Sun (producer of Blind Mountain); Laura Linney (The Savages); Jennifer Jason Leigh (Margot at the Wedding), Jyll Johnstone (director, Hats Off!) and Sarah Gavron (director, Brick Lane). This formidable group of women got up on the platform, and then we found that this panel about women filmmakers is being led by ... a man. Now, not that I have anything against men (heck, I like some of them quite a lot), but I wasn't the only one who found this a little odd. With all the women writing about film, teaching about film, making films, even staffing this festival, they couldn't find a woman to host this panel? I know Anne Thompson skipped out on Telluride this year, but surely they could have found someone. Anyone? Anyone?
The moderator gamely tried his best, kicking things off by asking Cody how her experiences as a woman had influenced her as a writer. She paused, then wryly noted, "Wow, that's a pretty tall order. Do you mean, like, my experiences as a woman since birth ... or ...?" Alexandra Sun had some interesting things to say about being a female filmmaker in Hong Kong, where testosterone-packed action flicks rule the day, and about the differences in China as it grows increasingly influenced by the West and capitalism, and loses the emphasis on gender equality that was always a part of the Communist Party line.
When they got around to Laura Linney, perched tensely on the edge of her seat like a cat waiting to spring, she was surface-calm, but the edge to her voice defined her response, as she started off with how she's "allergic" to this topic (and the related topic: "How I Survive Being a Woman Over 40 in Hollywood!"), even as she acknowledges that there is some validity to the implication that being a woman in Hollywood is, well, different than being a man. Sarah Gavron, in her turn, related an interesting story about a male gaffer on her set demanding that she fix him a cup of tea. When she icily informed him that she was the director, actually, he calmly told her again to just fetch him some tea. "As a female director," Gavron said drily, "I've often wished I had a 'willy.'"
Stories like Gavron's, sadly, are an indication that we still have a long way to go, baby, and I suppose as long as we do, there are still justifiable reasons to have panels on women in filmmaking. The thing that's so irritating, though, is you never see a panel of male filmmakers sitting up there on a platform, being asked oh-so-seriously whether their experience growing up as a person with a penis impacted the way they tell stories. Wouldn't such a panel strike people as odd, and completely irrelevant? Can you imagine someone asking Steven Spielberg if his vision as a filmmaker was affected by growing up as a boy?
We moved on to questions from the audience -- a few of the usual gushing "Oh gosh, I just had to say I loved you in ..." variety, and then someone asked Linney what advice she'd have for young women wanting to get into film.
"Well, I started out in Dave as the president's mistress, and he died in bed on top of me, so I guess you start there" Linney quipped. "Then you move on to action movies where you run from gorillas. And then you figure it out and you move on to independent films." And therein lies the rub: Hollywoods big boys (and big bucks) tend to line up behind the big, testosterone-laced action flicks and superhero stories, films where the women tend to be sidelined to "romantic interest" or "hot chick who can fix cars while wearing revealing clothing," while the really interesting, solid roles in which women are actually people and not eye candy, tend to be labeled "chick" fodder or get produced only in the indie world.
Sure, there are women of note in front of (and behind) the cameras in Hollywood -- women like Linney, Jane Campion, Penelope Cruz, Halle Berry, Sofia Coppola, Barbara Broccoli, Meryl Streep, Jodie Foster, and younger actresses like Evan Rachel Wood and Ellen Page who capture attention. But how often, when you read reviews of their films, or interviews with them, or articles about them, do you see their gender specifically referred to, or some inane comment about how well some poor actress is holding up on camera under the crushing weight of her 40-plus years (What? You mean women can still be sexy after 40?!) Not that there's anything wrong with acknowledging someone's relative attractiveness, but I have yet to see a review of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford that mentions how well that poor Brad Pitt is holding up onscreen now that he's pushing 44; Jodie Foster, though, whose film The Brave One is also playing the Toronto International Film Festival, is apparently fair game for that brand of misogyny. And so it goes, and goes, and goes.
But, as a panelist noted at the Telluride panel, it's also true that we live in a world where it's big news that there's finally a serious female presidential candidate, and where a woman has yet to win an Oscar for Best Director. And until that changes, until women hold equal sway over the power and the purse-strings in Hollywood, until female directors are so commonplace that a woman getting a Best Director Oscar nod is expected rather than big news, I guess there will still be a need for panels on women filmmakers. Some day, in the misty, egalitarian future I dream of, no one will care if a director has boobs or balls, and I'll go to film fests and the only panels will have female and male filmmakers equally represented, side by side, talking about their films and not how their gender impacted the making of them. Until that day happens, though, I guess I'll have to content myself with cheering on my sisters in the filmmaking world to that utopian finish line with a hearty, "You go, girl!"