Talkin’ Feminist Film Criticism with Miriam Bale, Founder of the New Quarterly Joan’s Digest

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11/21/2011 4:12 PM |

Jeff Chandler ravishes Joan Crawford in FEMALE ON THE BEACH
  • Jeff Chandler ravishes Joan Crawford in FEMALE ON THE BEACH

Miriam Bale, a curator and film critic (in these pages and elsewhere) has founded Joan’s Digest, a new online feminist film quarterly—so far you can read Genevieve Yue on the ghosts of the VHS era; Rebecca Cleman on crying in John Hughes movies (among other things), and more. Joan’s Digest held a launch party at Anthology Film Archives last Thursday night, featuring screenings of Renoir’s Woman on the Beach, starring Joan Bennett, and Female on the Beach, starring Joan Crawford; the films screen again tonight and tomorrow night. Recently, Miriam answered some questions over email about her project, its impetus and her hopes for it.

So first off, how is Joan’s Digest coming along? What more can we expect to see in it (and from whom)?
It’s going really well, thanks, except I haven’t been able to keep up with as much press, like this, as I’d have liked. But we launched with a really fun party (feminists and pro-feminist can put back a lot of bourbon, apparently, particularly after being group traumatized by the next-level Joan Crawford performance and hot pants outfits in Female on the Beach). New content is being added each day for the first week, so there are a few more articles still to come. We have articles on horror, melodrama, noir, crying styles in cinema, plus images essays, interviews with Martha Rosler and Molly Haskell and a thing on yonic symbolism in Cronenberg, plus more.

The contributors are a great group of smart women whom I’ve met in different contexts, so it was really fun to all get together at the launch party and introduce them to each other. They’re from all over, but I have noticed that quite a few of the women have also written for Film Comment, which makes sense. The editor there, Gavin Smith, was an early supporter who really encouraged my feminist film content when I first started writing. It’s also nice continuity since Film Comment published some interesting feminist film criticism in the 70s, and still does a great job of publishing women.

The L does alright, too! It could still use more women, I think (as could most places except Movieline) but it’s been good at publishing men on feminism, which is kind of the end goal. And that will be easier once men have more women’s writing to learn from and respond to.

Why a feminist film journal? I’m curious about your feelings about the necessity of a feminist outlook in film criticism in general, and also within today’s critical community more specifically.
Because more women need to be writing criticism. That’s the easiest answer. I know all these brilliant women who say brilliant things in passing (or on a blog, which is sort of talking to yourself, with an audience) but I wasn’t reading these women write long-form, serious criticism often. Something happens when an editor and writer can work together over time, in a journal that has a specific tone. It forms a community of people who read and respect each other, aspiring to top each other with a bit of healthy competition, but also recommending each other for other work. And hanging out socially, too. But I’ve found that women are less easily brought into that community. Oh, they might exist on the periphery, or might exist as a novelty for a while (“wow, she’s like us, but we can fuck her!” ) but it’s hard for women to maintain a stable relationship with that community, that boys club, from what I’ve observed. Now I’m just referring to the straight boys; there is a great gay community who are very supportive of the ladies, but that world is also mostly men. (Many of whom came out to support our launch, maybe from a shared love of bourbon and Joan Crawford.)

So I thought a stable and separate community for women would be a good experiment. And fun.

And, in general, well, if you see a poorly drawn character in a movie, it’s a bad movie. If a film includes a feeble presentation of women, it’s simply not a good film. Sometimes, especially if we’ve seen too many movies, we base our views of women on other movies that we’ve seen, which were wonky in the first place. So sometimes we need feminist perspectives to set this straight again. (But there are other reasons, too, that have to do with curiosity about exploring different forms of criticism.)

Why “Joan”?
There’s a definite focus in feminist film criticism, and in our journal in particular, on actresses, so that was important. And there are some great Joans! The two Joans (Bennett and Crawford) who are featured in our launch celebration screenings at Anthology are the best.

Joan Bennett, Joan Bennett and Edward G. Robinson in Fritz Langs WOMAN IN THE WINDOW
  • Joan Bennett, Joan Bennett and Edward G. Robinson in Fritz Lang’s WOMAN IN THE WINDOW

When I first started going to Film Forum a lot, I heard the genius programmer there, Bruce Goldstein, say something that was one of those things you note and remember because you don’t know what the hell it means, and realize it’s gonna take a long time to figure it out. He said something like, oh everyone says Katharine Hepburn is their favorite actress, well I like Joan Bennett. And I thought, who? I had seen her in a few things but, well, I thought he was just being a contrarian. But once I had seen more films (which was the reason I was in New York) I realized that he was totally right. She’s amazing! She did everything: she was a sassy blonde in the 30s in films by Walsh and others; one of the greatest brunette seductresses in the 40s, particularly with Lang; the perfect matriarch in the 50s in films by Minnelli and Sirk; and even a crazy ballet witch cult leader in Argento’s Suspiria! She did it all. [You forgot Dark Shadows! -Ed.] And the thing that’s interesting about her is that she was always too down-to-earth to get stuck playing a man’s projection. In Woman on the Beach, there’s a big reveal where Robert Ryan finds out some secret of hers and is about to call her a name. “What? A tramp?” she says, amused, “You’re just figuring that out?”

And Joan Crawford… well, she’s something else. She once said that everyone imitates Hepburn or Monroe, but that no one imitates her because what she does comes from such a personal place. And it is deeply personal, but then comes our all weird and abstract. The truth is that I think Joan Crawford is kind of the holy grail of film criticism. If you can describe what the hell it is she’s doing in her bizarre and moving performances in Johnny Guitar, Autumn Leaves and the film we’re screening, Female on the Beach, then you’ve made it as a critic. But so far I don’t think anyone’s quite got there yet.

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It often seems as though much of the discourse of feminist cultural criticism takes place within academia—how do you envision Joan’s Digest in relation to academia? In relation to more populist critical formats?
Well, it’s important to remember that what may be the most important article in academic feminist film theory, Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema”—which came out at the same time as some more populist feminist film criticism like Molly Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape—started outside all that. Mulvey’s article was first published as the statement of a filmmaker, when she was not an academic but a faculty wife. Women’s Studies and Film Studies programs were both just beginning then, in the mid-70s. So, perhaps I’m interested in bringing it back before it took this road, which gave feminist film criticism authority and funding, but also caused it to lose that brave, vulnerable style of speaking in one’s own voice.

You know, this is a complicated question. I buy used copies of feminist film theory academic anthologies to read for leisure, in the bathtub and before bed. I love this stuff. But while I find the content crucial and useful, the language gets in the way of the ideas, I think, so I hope that bringing a clear and personal writing style to some heavy content will be an advantage to our independence.

A big difference, too, is that a lot of feminist film theory is based on a dialectical relationship of man as oppressor and woman as oppressed. But I’m not sure that works with feminism. Carla Lonzi, who was Italian and wrote a book called Sputiamo su Hegel (Let’s Spit on Hegel) thought so. She wrote, “On the level of the woman-man relationship, there is no solution which eliminates the other; thus the goal of seizing power is emptied of meaning.”

Also, while we’re influenced by the great feminist film journals like Jump Cut, Camera Obscura, and Women and Film, I’m also inspired by smart “women’s magazines” for the look and tone of the journal: magazines like Nova, Flair, Viva, and of course Ms. Plus that other great feminist magazine, Sassy.

Can you cite some exemplary feminist film criticism, either an incidental moment or a large-scale critical project, that you’ll take as an inspiration or at least useful example?
A simple example of what distinguishes the complicated relationship of identification and projection (as opposed to voyeurism) that goes on in feminist film criticism can be found in this wonderful essay from Jump Cut about subversive play in the great feminist film Celine and Julie Go Boating—even just in the article’s title. It’s by Julia Lesage and is called “Celine and Julia Go Boating.”