Last December, after months of research, critic Manohla Dargis began posting a series of pieces on women in film for The New York Times. Her stories tackled the false hope stoked by Kathryn Bigelow's historic Oscar win and the recent rise of Selma director Ava DuVernay; Hollywood's "fear-driven," male-dominated industry; how women directors view the industry; and finally, how women are fighting for better Hollywood opportunities.
It was the last piece that earned the ire of New Yorker critic Richard Brody, who replied with his own story on how critics have failed female filmmakers. Brody argues that Dargis buried the lead, and "breezes" by important facts. The thrust of his argument focuses on the underappreciated talent of Elaine May, and others whose vision ought to earn more financing and recognition. "Dargis' complaint about the state of the industry seems misplaced," he writes. "Today's leading independent visionaries are tomorrow's acknowledged auteurs; rather than merely waving at independent filmmakers en route to the shining studio cities, it would be worth calling attention to artists of today who have made superb films and ought to be bumping up to the next level of financing and recognition."
On one level, Brody is right — it's important for critics to call attention to the artists of today, and foster the visionaries that can become tomorrow's icons. But it is, by no means, a buried lead. (To suggest as much paints his valid point with the brush of mansplaining, suggesting that his insights are the lead, and not Dargis' own researched take.)
Brody's argument is a single element of a much larger problem. Though critical champions are necessary, they are inextricably linked to the systems Dargis is investigating. For women to get to the next level of financing, the system has to be willing to invest in them — and as Dargis notes, studies are already looking at "why it's hard for female filmmakers to make second and third movies that are either independently or institutionally funded." Before women can become tomorrow's auteurs, the studio system has to be willing to hire them. Before that, the entire system has to be willing to fund their attempts to build a body of work.
Brody differentiates between "critical taste and advocacy" and "entertainment chatter," and argues that the former matters "far more" than the latter. But both are necessary for developing and exposing talent. Both sides matter because cinema isn't served to one neat, homogenous audience. So long as critical and commercial media platforms are dominated by men tastes and advocacy will skew towards a narrower experience — one that historically ignores female contributions.
To prove how much critical advocacy has buoyed independent filmmakers, Brody argues that studio executives "are coming around to selecting directors from among the crop of independents" for big-budget blockbusters, citing the likes of Marc Webb (who went from 500 Days of Summer to The Amazing Spider-Man) and Josh Trank (who went from Chronicle to the upcoming The Fantastic Four). But there's nothing new about this trend; it's gone on for years, since Bryan Singer jumped from Apt Pupil and The Usual Suspects to X-Men, and extended to Shane Black (Iron Man 3), Tony and Joe Russo (Captain America), James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy), and Christopher Nolan (the Dark Knight trilogy).
Nolan's artful take on Batman proves part of Brody's argument — that support for independent visionaries today can strengthen the films we get tomorrow. But that presupposes that there are no biases in choosing which independent filmmakers are worthy of consideration. Patty Jenkins was the only woman considered and hired for a superhero blockbuster (Thor 2) after a leading indie film (Monster), but was eventually fired and replaced by TV director Alan Taylor. Michelle McLaren is now poised to become the first female director of a superhero movie (Wonder Woman), but was only hired after Warner Bros. decided to look solely at female directors, making the job into a feminist statement for a feminist superhero.
Even these lesser versions of the indie-to-blockbuster are the exceptions, not the rule. Dargis' coverage outlines how Ava DuVernay's success with Middle of Nowhere didn't result in any studio offers until David Oyelowo advocated for her as the director of Selma (and only after producers tired of the project's revolving door of male directors). Lynne Ramsay won Cannes jury prizes for her first two shorts, and multiple awards for her stellar first features Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar. But her auteur take on the novel The Lovely Bones was abandoned in favor of Peter Jackson. Ramsay struggled with budgetary issues before finally releasing her third feature, We Need to Talk About Kevin. That led her to Jane Got a Gun, which may have killed her career; though she was one of many to back out of the project, she was publicly vilified by producers who framed her as a careless drunk — mudslinging she refused to participate in.Sources for The Hollywood Reporter painted a more complicated picture of delays outside her control.
Cinema is riddled with stories of female auteurs who were praised for their art but still failed to secure interest, money, and support to continue their work. There is a long-held double standard about how men and women approach their craft. As director Sarah Polley said in 2012, "Having a reputation as difficult is equated with being an artist, but if you're a woman and you're a difficult director, people call you a bitch."
In a system this unbalanced, it isn't enough for critics to champion the lone women amongst lists of men. Film history has usually acknowledged the occasional female talents worth mentioning. It has a much greater problem acknowledging that there are many more out there, each struggling for the smallest morsels of opportunity.
Yes, critics have failed female filmmakers. But so have studios, audiences, filmmakers, and just about everyone. The "it takes a village" cliché persists because it's true. Singular approaches are helpful so long as they recognize their position in a bigger picture. Be fierce, be singular, but never fool yourself into thinking that your spin is the lead.