Movies – An Open Letter to Manohla Dargis

Dear Manohla Dargis,

First of all, let it be said that I respect you as a film critic.  I find your reviews generally insightful, entertaining, and most importantly fair-minded.  And I also respect that you’re frustrated with the lack of female directors.  So I thought I’d make a few points about your, >AHEM<, perspective on this issue, and point out that it’s not so much a lack of female directors, it’s a lack of female directors who don’t suck.

1) First, let’s address your issue of selective perception re: male directors getting more chances.  Are you kidding me?  Seriously?  Because Kathryn Bigelow took six years to make another movie after “K-19” bombed, that’s somehow endemic of Hollywood sexism?

I’m not going to pretend it might not be a factor, but you’re kind of missing the fact that one bomb is all it takes for a LOT of directors, regardless of gender, to vanish for six years or more, or even for good.   Hell, it doesn’t even take a bomb.  Richard Kelly made “Donnie Darko”, and it tanked.  He was gone for…six years.  He followed that up with “Southland Tales”, and that tanked, but he somehow landed the money for “The Box” and produced “I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell”, both of which tanked.

Or how about Alex Proyas?  He made “Dark City”, which had one of the most respected mainstream film critics, Roger Ebert, turn up on its commentary.  He vanished for four years, put out a movie nobody saw (“Garage Days”), used that to get “I, Robot”, and then turned up four years later with “Knowing.”

And now let’s turn that around and look at two female directors you trashed: Nancy Myers and Nora Ephron.  Ephron torpedoes your example because she’s been continuously working for more than two decades, even after she puts out a turkey like “Bewitched”.  “Bewitched” actually lost a fortune, and four years later, she’s got the plum assignment of a bestseller with one of the most respected actresses in the entire world in the lead and a rising star playing the other lead.  Meyers, meanwhile, has been cranking out the pain every three years like clockwork since 1998.

It’s not that I disagree wtih the idea, necessarily.  It’s that I think you’re making a far too easy assumption when you shouldn’t, and that obscures the problem rather than clarifies it.  Ephron and Meyers are hacks, period.  But Hollywood loves hacks.  If you want more female directors, almost inevitably, those directors are going to be hacks. 

2) Re: making movies for the great unwashed because that’s what they think they want.

They don’t think it, they know it.  I hate to break this to you, ma’am, but the masses really really love shitty movies.  One of the highest grossing movies this year was “Transformers 2”, for Christ’s sake.  It made nearly a billion dollars worldwide.  That’s more than most Third World countries.  It’s probably more than most Third World countries put together.

But I think a better example is a movie you took down several notches when it came out, “The Ugly Truth”.  You called out the writers, the producers, and the head of the studio that produced and released it, Columbia, for making a sexist piece of garbage, especially since they were all educated women who should know better.  Plus Katherine Heigl, who was whining about crappy scripts earlier in the year. 

One problem: worldwide?  It made $200 million.  That turd made an enormous profit and secured Heigl as a romantic comedy lead.  This despite being universally hated.  I mean, Jesus, Peter Travers piled on, and he loves everything.  Adding to the sting is probably the fact that it was mostly women who turned up for this.

3) Re: The Damsel In Distress, and Paul Degarabedian’s comments on same.

I agree it was uncouth for him to say that…but look at it from his perspective, again, the box office.  “New Moon”, not exactly a feminist tract, just had the third-highest grossing weekend of all time, and that wasn’t guys turning out for that pile of shit.  Again, you may not turn out for the Damsel in Distress, I may not, nobody we know may (or at least admit to going).  But SOMEBODY is.  A lot of somebodies are.  And Hollywood only cares about money.

4) Not being gentle with female-directed movies just because you share chromosomes.

Good for you.  No, seriously, no sarcasm.  Good for you.  I get as tired of that shit as anybody else.

Look, I don’t blame you for being angry.  I hate living in a world where I have to hope “Bright Star” will turn up at my local arthouse while “It’s Complicated” is about to inflict itself on the American public (and I’ve got to ask, does Meryl Streep have gambling debts, or is just really sick of the Oscar game?).  I hate it that “The Hurt Locker” gets a smaller release than a clumsy melodrama like “Brothers”.

But the problem is clearly a lot more deep-seated than just Hollywood sexism, and some of it lies with the audience, pure and simple.  Hollywood turns out shit because the audience demands shit.  Shit sells.  Sure, every now and then a quality film comes along, like Pixar’s work or “The Dark Knight” or “Where the Wild Things Are”.  Part of the problem is that Hollywood’s audience is by and large teenagers.  I actually go to the movies quite a bit, in fact last week I went twice, double what your average American goes to in a year.  But the last Hollywood movie I went to go see was “Ninja Assassin”, so that’s the last time I mattered on their balance sheets.

And let’s not forget, the indie world is culpable.  In fact, the indie world is worse.  In Hollywood, if you have a vagina, either you’re turning out romantic comedies or you don’t exist.  In the indie world, if you don’t turn out movies that are explicitly about women and aren’t dramedies…good fucking luck.  You’ll need it.  Especially if there’s nothing explicitly feminist in your movie, then you’re really shafted.

Again, I’m not saying Hollywood isn’t sexist.  I am saying you’re misrepresenting exactly what the problem is.  To be completely honest, I think more female directors won’t help with turning out misogynist swill.  There has to be a broader cultural shift, first.  Hollywood is both a dictator and a mirror: it gives us what it thinks the majority of us want.

How do we engage that cultural shift?  I have no idea.  But I’m dead certain that’s where we start.


One Response to “Movies – An Open Letter to Manohla Dargis”

  1. Tracie Frieler Says:

    Took me time to read all the comments, but I really enjoyed the article. It proved to be Very helpful to me and I am sure to all the commenters here! It’s always nice when you can not only be informed, but also entertained! I’m sure you had fun writing this article.

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