by Patricia Erens
Cut, no. 6, 1975, p. 26
As the first published book devoted to women filmmakers, Jeanne Betancourt’s WOMEN IN FOCUS provides both jubilation and a great disappointment. The book annotates approximately one hundred films of varying lengths by female (and a handful of male) directors. Each listing is followed by bibliographic information on the filmmaker (some gleaned from personal correepondence), a filmography, and suggestions for supplementary reading. In addition, the book contains a plethora of well chosen photographs and an especially fine annotated bibliography, compiled by Madeline Warren, of seventy works on all aspects of interest to feminists.
Unfortunately, however. WOMEN IN FOCUS is not the book we've all been waiting for. Betancourt has chosen merely to document the works of women filmmakers rather than to confront the theoretical issues which they raise, especially the question of a feminist aesthetic. Thus, WOMEN IN FOCUS reads like a cross between a well-illustrated catalogue and a recipe book. Aiming at the high school and college teacher, school librarian, and audio-visual department, Betancourt seems more intent on classifying each film in its proper category than in analyzing the works.
Betancourt, who teaches at an all-women’s high school in New York City and who participated in the first International Women’s Film Festival, states in her introduction that the selections reflect her desire to present works with non-sexist images. Because she used the material to encourage her students to confront their own feelings shout being female, a high percentage of the films deal with sexuality as well as with social issues. Such an approach, though self involving, tends to ignore historical and theoretical problems in favor of questions of identity.
By including many films which depict women on the threshold of feminine consciousness, Betancourt avoids the problem of a limited critical stance which characterizes Joan Mellen’s WOMEN AND THEIR SEXUALITY IN THE NEW FILM, a work which favors militancy over maternity and confidence over confusion. Although Betancourt’s admiration for intelligent, independent women, capable of making resolute decisions. emerges in her review of Yolanda Du Luaart’s ANGELA DAVIS: PORTRAIT OF A REVOLUTIONARY, she does not ignore the importance of works like Nell Cox’s A-B, Agnes Varda’s CLEO FROM FIVE TO SEVEN, and Julia Reichert and James Klein’s GROWING UP FEMALE, which depict women incapable of dealing with sexist oppression or unconscious of the degree to which they have ingested the dominant values of a sexist society. It is too bad that Betancourt did not also include some problematic films like WANDA (see Chuck Kleinhans’ review in JUMP CUT no. 1) or Claude Chabrol’s LES BONNES FEMMES. By refusing to acknowledge films which depict the passive assignation of a Wanda or the fantasies of the shopgirls in LES BONNES FEMMES, Betancourt limits herself to a circumscribed area of the female experience.
Although Betancourt explicitly rejects the existence of a feminist aesthetic, it is regrettable that she did not develop comprehensive criteria for viewing films by and/or about women, which could then be applied to works not discussed in her book. Such an approach would have been extremely useful in coming to terms with stereotypical portrayals and with projected fantasies. By bringing together such a diverse grouping (commercial features, personal documentaries, experimental works, and educational films) which have little in common except non-sexist images, Betancourt has created a bag of worms. Some effort should have been made to deal with the various modes of expression and the conventions intrinsic to each genre. Betancourt squirms out of an uncomfortable predicament by treating each film as a closed work. She states,
Such an attitude undermines the value of the work as a useful tool for teachers unfamiliar with film studies and for film scholars. As a collection of impressionistic reviews, the book will date quickly (hopefully, each year more women will produce films) and thus will become little more than an outmoded catalogue. It is too bad that Betancoort did not tie the films together in a more meaningful way.
In an effort to establish come consistency. Betancourt devised a general format. Each entry includes the following material: 1) plot summary and pertinent production facts, 2) critical assessment, primarily in feminist terms, and 3) appropriate use of the film. However, such an approach becomes ludicrous when applied to the experiments of Maya Deren. In discussing MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON, Betancourt wisely chose to deal with film aesthetics. Her perceptive analysis, however, has little relationship to feminist concerns. Perhaps noting this defect, Betancourt attempted to apply a feminist critique in her analysis of Deren’s RITUAL IN TRANSFIGURED TIME. But her conclusion that the film concerns a heroine “searching for a love” is not only grossly simplistic, but worse, such an interpretation undermines the multiple readings inherent in so complex a work. Other absurdities include the suggested reading of The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective’s Our Bodies, Our Selves for a discussion of Kirsanov’s MENILMONTANT. To approach the poetic beauty of such an avant-garde masterpiece from the perspective of biology and endocrinology seems the height of folly.
Several last comments. Betancourt has included many directors whose names are not as familiar as those of Nelly Kaplan, Agnes Varda, and Mai Zetteriing. Of particular interest are animators like Suzan Pitt Kraning and Suzanne Bauman and women who earn their living as producer/ directors in television and nontheatrical productions, such as Nell Cox, Frances McLaughlin Gill, and Martha Stuart. Also, although WOMEN IN FOCUS is largely devoted to works by women, the inclusion of several excellent films by men deserves praise. Certainly Abram Room’s BED AND SOFA, Ousmane Sembene’s BLACK GIRL, Jean Louis Bertucelli’s RAMPARTS OF CLAY, and Herbert Biberman’s SALT OF THE EARTH need to be considered, especially alongside works by Hollywood directors covered in the texts by Marjorie Rosen and Molly Haskell.
Despite the flaws, WOMEN IN FOCUS is a welcome addition to the growing library of works devoted to women and film. It is unfortunate that the outrageous price of $10.00 (paper) will prevent many prospective purchasers from adding the book to their collection.