A feminist voice in film
Most of the film critics who rate and review films are men — that means that no matter what the subject matter, the lens the critical reception is filtered through will always have that singularly male perspective. In the early days of film criticism, women and men shared a more balanced platform. Now, you can count the prominent film critics who are women on one hand. One of the best of them is The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday, who has just released what should be an essential guide to watching movies for critics, film fans, and filmmakers. Talking Pictures: How to Watch Movies breaks down each of the essential elements that go into building a great movie. With chapters devoted to acting, directing, writing, cinematography, and more, her book is like taking a master class on cinema studies — but delivered with Hornaday’s wit and sharp focus on what her readers might want to know. Like why you can’t make a good movie out of a bad screenplay, or how a good editor can sometimes reshape the whole movie.
“I think the role of the critic is to prepare viewers for the aesthetic experience they're about to have, should they choose to see the movie in question,” Hornaday says. “That includes evaluating all the technical and artistic questions I address in the book, but also context, history and politics, should those things be germane to better appreciating the film at hand.”
Hornaday also brings a much-needed feminist perspective to the collective shaping of American film culture. Her voice is badly needed in today’s climate, where women are beginning to speak out about decades of mistreatment behind the camera. Hornaday does not specifically delve into feminist issues in Talking Pictures, but her weekly column at The Washington Post has been exploring the latest allegations of sexual harassment, and how they relate to the film industry overall. “I do think being a woman writing about film brings a different lens to male-centric narratives and tropes that are so often mistaken for the norm in Hollywood, so that maybe readers are invited to be a bit more critical of them and not take them so much for granted,” she says.
While Hornaday’s book does not talk about watching movies specifically as a woman or a feminist, she notably includes many women directors in her analysis — like Kathryn Bigelow, Sofia Coppola, and Ava DuVernay, advocating for them as prominent voices in cinema, and also taking care not to omit them in these rapidly changing times. Hornaday understands how important it is to remind people that women, especially women of color, benefit from the rising profiles of other successful women.
“More underrepresented groups are making their way into the filmmaking ranks,” she says. “I could have included more female directors in book, but it was mostly based on interviews I'd done over the past ten years or so — and even in that time, we've seen so many new voices come to the fore. If I wrote it today, I could include Dee Rees and Greta Gerwig and Anna Rose Holmer, just to name a very few. If I have one regret about the book, it's that I didn't include a chapter on representation, but I was under a pretty strict word count. Still, if there are subsequent editions I'd like to address that.”
Hornaday’s voice in film criticism illustrates that the best writing about films and Hollywood takes into account how men and women are treated differently, and shows why film criticism needs a more balanced approach — not only for the sake of women but also for the industry itself. While Hornaday should never be considered strictly a “feminist critic,” it’s clear that she doesn’t back off when it comes to championing women or calling out Hollywood’s double standards.
“The current spate of stories regarding sexual harassment in the industry really points up how representation in all ranks of Hollywood — from the executive suite to casts and crews — affects what stories get told, and how," she says. “I think that definitely includes critics. Perhaps if there were more women critics, Hollywood would less often underestimate us both as artists and a market (i.e., be continually surprised when female-driven projects 'overperform,' which is a euphemism for selling short an entire gender).”
Hornaday is well aware of the powerful forces that can prevent women from speaking out against violations in an industry dominated by male voices and male power and male needs. But hers is nonetheless an observation probably only a woman, and a feminist, would even consider. In a recent Washington Post column, she called out the industry for its double standard regarding women: “The Weinstein revelations lay bare the screaming hypocrisy at the core of Hollywood’s storied liberalism, which loves to pay lip service to equal rights and feminism but has remained impressively impermeable when it comes to representation of women, who directed a paltry 4 percent of the top 100 films last year, and accounted for only 29 percent of mainstream-movie protagonists."
She goes on to say: “In academic circles, the monotonously sexist, objectifying perspective through which most movies are made is called the 'male gaze,' which men and women alike have been asked to internalize as the norm virtually since the medium’s inception. But that gaze has begun to wander lately: The most successful movies of 2017 include such female-centric stories as Beauty and the Beast, Wonder Woman and Girls Trip. Weinstein’s own personal and institutional power has waned in recent years — which probably accounts for why his accusers felt emboldened to come forward — but that also reflects a collective shift away from the kind of leering, dehumanizing perspective he will now embody forever.”
Film critics of Hornaday’s caliber are too few and far between. Talking Pictures is a full-body scan of the art of making movies, and it’s a universally appealing one. She asks and answers important questions: Why do films succeed or fail? What are the common traps filmmakers can fall into? Hornaday’s gender as a critic has come into play a few times over the years, particularly when she has been critical of the male voices that dominate popular film culture. That has made her an occasional target. But it is also her perspective as a feminist that has given an added dimension to how she chooses to amplify the importance of women on and off camera.
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