There is an article from The Dissolve going around that breaks down the issues with the “Strong Female Character” and makes a case for what writers/directors should in fact be focusing on when writing women. It is a good article even if it’s saying things that have already been said before and the people sharing it and discussing it, already believe what the article is preaching. I’m going to be honest one of the reasons I decided to take a break from Madwomen & Muses besides a desire to focus solely on my screenwriting, was the feeling that writing straight film criticism on this blog was pointless. How many feminist (or feminist leaning) blogs and articles have we read that make the same point that The Dissolve makes? Yes, these articles are important but in the grand scheme of things they don’t help the same way actually having more women involved in the filmmaking process behind the camera would and they are very surface level critiques that only the completely myopic or women hating would deny their validity. It isn’t just about how are stories are being told but who is telling them.
I realized during my break from Madwomen & Muses that I love nonfiction almost as much as I love screenwriting. I am at my best with film criticism (and my other non-fiction pursuits) when I couch it in my personal experience. Which is why I had to write briefly about a comment I noticed on The Dissolve article, screencaptured below.
The comment is a micro example of the myopic understanding of film history that angers me. It is no secret that I am rather obsessed with and frequently defend the femme fatale. I got into a heated conversation about the nature of the archetype after my Bright Wall/Dark Room essay about True Detective came out. Some people believe the femme fatale is, in essence, a dark mirror for the neuroses of the male lead. That her sexuality isn’t rooted in autonomy but in the weird desires of the male writers in creating a sexual woman and then punishing her for being sexually realized.
The thing is film hasn’t evolved in a straight line. It is a convenient and neat lie to say that as women progressed in real life, they progressed on screen. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the women’s picture was dying around the 1960s and finally died in the 1970s (with a few exceptions). I don’t think it is a coincidence that we rarely see female characters of an unlikeable sort whose unlikeability isn’t rooted in fantastical badasses or women who don’t wield guns with abandon. I yearn to watch (and write) women with barred teeth and sharp claws who skirt the edges of acceptable morality. Women who are layered and further the cinematic depictions of actresses like Barbara Stanwyck.
To say, "I’m not saying in anyway it is enough, but I do think evolution is spinning in the positive direction. Contrast that to the murderous, calculating she-devils of the 1940’s to early 1970’s film noir/film noir lite and it is significant", like the first commenter on The Dissolve article did is to ignore the fact that those femme fatales do something most female characters (even the supposedly strongly written ones) aren’t allowed to do in modern times: advance the plot. The noir films, both cherished and obscure, couldn’t exist without their femme fatales. She is the main engine for the plot, she advances the story sometimes far more than the male lead. And to compare the post-studio system femme fatale to her 1940s ancestor shows how many ways film regressed as women gained more power in their personal lives because of feminism. These modern femme fatales aren’t challenging the subtext and politics in the genre. They aren’t better written, more autonomous or even more interesting (for the most part). Rather like many supposedly Strong Female Characters these post-studio system femme fatales reveal a flaw in mainstream feminist thinking and desires of the audience to watch women commit acts we consider reprehensible when done by men. They are cold automatons of desire, grit and violence. Is this the best fellow screenwriters can do? Is this all we are willing to receive as audiences?
Ultimately no matter how well-written or true articles like this one on The Dissolve are a part of me is bored of having these same conversations over and over again. I’m tired of talking about and reading about the issues with women on screen and how to make them better without anything really happening or without creating more challenging, layered critiques. How many people do these articles reach who change their minds for the better? I’m not saying I don’t enjoy these articles or think they are wholly pointless, but personally I have decided writing them is not for me or Madwomen & Muses.
Bette Davis in Satan Met a Lady (1936). Interestingly enough, this footage wasn’t used in the film; another angle was edited in when Davis says this line. The shot comes from the trailer, which is why the quality is, alas, not as good as one might hope.
[photograph by my boss friend arabella]
When I look at photographs of abandoned buildings I think of the small, one story home that defines my childhood growing up in Miami. It still stands, although with major remodeling since my mother lost it during my college years. There are people living in my childhood home. But in my mind it is abandoned because the home that once was no longer is. I imagined our trinkets and books and treasured, glimmering things in various stages of rot. Cobwebs blur the smiling faces in the pictures that color the home. Even in all that disrepair it would be easy to stitch together the family narrative as if the walls could talk.
In this home I first heard voices from the mouths of people who were not there. In this home, I was a mess of voluptuous sadness. I was (am) a girl stitched together by anger and fed by creative energy.
When I look at the photographs of abandoned homes I think of the ghosts of my past. All those should haves, could haves, all those avenues never meant to be traveled. I think of the first time I realized my mother actually cried. The door of the bathroom between us as she softly sobbed. I think of my anger and the way it adjusted the architecture of the home—-split walls, crumbling dry wood. The way the volatile emotions of my family seemed to make the home fall a part. During hurricanes rain water would pour down the walls in heavy rivulets because the foundation had shifted.
During this time I felt like I was a time bomb. A vicious, explosive mix of misdirected fury, unrealized creative potential, and yearning. Tick tick tick. Years have passed. I write like a motherfucker. I have grown beyond my boundaries (and created some new ones). I have learned to channel my emotions into my writing and other healthier venues. I’m more comfortable in my own body than before. Yet sometimes (dark times) if I listen closely I can still hear that ticking go by.
Never just an actress, Gena Rowlands is an athlete. With performances so painfully visceral and emotionally strenuous, she brings characters to life in a way that feels more like possession than performance. For over fifty years now, she has been gracing our screens and enriching our cinematic experience with her talent. And although her work outside the films of John Casavetes have been wonderful, it was the collaborations with her husband that still resonate the strongest and continue to astound regardless of how many times you press repeat. From Faces and A Woman Under the Influence to Love Streams and Opening Night, it was her absolute dedication to her craft and his obsessive desire to portray frighteningly personal and potent stories that truly showcased what a phenomenal wonder Rowlands truly is.
Celebrating the Magic of Gena Rowlands on Her Birthday - BlackBook
(a poster I made for a screenplay I’m writing just because I wanted to)
While I enjoy writing film criticism and essays, I am taking a (somewhat) hiatus from doing so right now to focus ENTIRELY on screenwriting. If possible I will update Madwomen & Muses when I can and submit mondo essays to places from time to time. Screenwriting is my blood passion and the most important form of writing for me. It is fucking time for me to make it happen in that arena. I just want to be true to myself as a writer and be honest about my deepest passions.
Thoughts on the Writing of “True Detective”
(gif via truth at 24 frames per second)
I was able to read an early draft of the True Detective pilot by Nic Pizzolatto which was before the location was moved to rural Louisiana and the cast was brought on. The gif above includes an excerpt from the scene in which Marty Hart and Rust Cohle first see the body of murder victim Dora Lange. While there are some interesting differences between this early draft and the actual episode/newer drafts of the story the structure, core ideas, and mood is basically intact.
I recently finished reading Nic Pizzolatto’s debut novel, Galveston. Like True Detective, it ultimately boils down to the story of a fucked up man finding redemption and a stronger sense of humanity because of the suffering of women. It is a beautifully written novel and there are moments of poignancy that really got under my skin. So, when reading Pizzolatto’s screenwriting I was expecting the same wonderful turns of phrase. While the dialogue on True Detective is indicative of the rough poetry Pizzolatto shows in his prose his descriptive text is a slightly different story. While Pizzolatto balances his natural, florid, imaginative instincts as a writer within the structure of a screenplay he does something that I abhor in scripts; he puts a lot of camera angles and more directorial flourishes than necessary. After a while I got used to it but I have always felt, as a screenwriter, such writing was unnecessary and can even distract since it comes across as the writer trying to direct on the page. There are ways to do this in which you don’t use terminology like “angle on” and “close up” but still highlight the important details in the scene. But what’s most interesting in the pilot script is how Pizzolatto approaches writing about Dora Lange’s body.
I find the the line “depicted as mercifully as possible” an interesting one especially within the context of how True Detective handles the bodies of women (either as victims or as sexual beings). It is difficult to call the women who populate the show sexual beings since the narrative doesn’t give them the agency to define much of anything for themselves. Even Marty’s overzealous, sexually charged mistresses seem tinged with parody, like the kind of girls a middle aged married man fantasizes about not the kind he actually gets involved with. Pizzolatto signifying he wants the dead, posed body of Dorothy Lange to be “depicted as mercifully as possible” speaks to the seemingly contradictory impulses of the show’s writing. To abhor the violence of women and treat it carefully but still revel enough in it to get under our skin. Nudity may indeed be an HBO mandate but on a show like True Detective even within the realm of a consensual sexual encounter it feels rather sordid and even sad.
Like in his debut novel, True Detective doesn’t seem to want to show sex as an enjoyable experience at least emotionally speaking. Sex is both temporary cure and longtime wound for the male characters (it is hard to parse out what it is for the women in the show since we don’t get enough of their point of view). Whenever I get a hold of the more recent scripts I definitely want to see how Pizzolatto writes the sex scenes. If anyone has the latest drafts for True Detective let me know.
True Detective is the rare modern noir that I feel (mostly) lives up to what the genre is really about. It rips the stoic face off of prestige television shows rooted in the white male perspective to reveal a vulnerability and optimism in its final episode I found refreshing even if I feel within the context of the show the ending didn’t really work. Like others, I had issues with the finale. For me I felt it broke its own internal logic moving from southern fried noir to a character study spliced with a weak procedural/white trash horror show. How Marty figures out the green ears clue is especially hilarious and even nonsensical. But for the most part I think Pizzolatto’s writing is intelligent and even when it failed to meet its lofty goals there is a gusto and passion to the work I admire.
“Explosive, she could be, with sudden, unexpected eruptions, but Bette was an amazingly compassionate woman as well, capable of being a great friend to anyone who earned her confidence. In the 24 years I knew her, from 1965 until her death in 1989, I did see her rattle chandeliers but never, I might add, without some kind of justification… There were also outbursts later in her life but those occurred because she was ill and frightened about it. But the Bette I knew could also be great fun. She loved to laugh. She enjoyed the profession of acting above all else, but she was also (surprise!) quite a haufstrau. She kept a tidy home, often without a housekeeper and never with full time help. She was also a terrific cook (tasty, basic New England dishes her specialty), a hands-on, no-help-required hostess, a good listener, someone vitally interested in politics (photos signed to her by Franklin Roosevelt and John and Bobby Kennedy were as treasured by her as her numerous awards), and she thoroughly enjoyed such simple things as Easter egg hunts and dancing to songs by Johnny Mercer. (One reason for the latter: she and Mercer had an on-going romance in the 1940s, something even the noisiest gossip columnists never discovered)…. Bette Davis was, first and foremost, an Actress with a capital A, and proud of it- and what a treasury of films she’s left as her legacy.”
- Robert Osbourne on Bette “HBIC” Davis