Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Mary Harron: Auteur for the SCUM

Auteur theory refers to movie directors that are able to leave his/her clear imprint in a film, regardless of the source material and the rest of the creative influence that goes into making a movie. The word auteur, French for “author”, conveys that the vision and the craft these directors put into their projects makes them authors as a writer is to a literary work. The obvious difference is that a film is composed of many moving parts, including a written script, and the freedom of a director and of any other contributing team member often hinges on the studio financing the film. Thus true auteurs are hard to come by, because they are able to lend their unique and distinctive DNA to their work even when they are part of a big production, or because they are able to provide the financing themselves.

Legendary auteurs include Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa and Stanley Kubrick; contemporary auteurs include Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino. You can tell apart their films and their style, they are usually in control of all facets of making the film, and they all happen to be men. If we keep drilling down the list of recognized auteurs it takes some time to find a woman, and even if you do, they are not mainstream names when compared to their male counterparts. Adding injury to insult, even talented, successful directors like Kathryn Bigelow and Sofia Coppola are often defined in the media by their relationships to other auteurs, and not by their own merits. Bigelow made big news this year with the first Oscar win for a female director, and colleagues like Julie Taymor and Jane Campion have increased their stature in the movie industry, but the numbers are lacking and stagnant for women in directing and writing roles. According to a 2009 study published by San Diego State University, in 2008 only 9% of directors in Hollywood were women, the same number recorded in a similar study in 1998 (, women still make up only 6% of all film directors and 12% of screenwriters. While it can be argued that the ranks of elite actresses outnumber actors and continue to grow at a faster pace, directing and writing roles that shape the vision and the content of the movies we see are severely lacking a female perspective.

Among the crop of female directors trying to change the status quo, while remaining true to their own style and ideals as an auteur, we find Mary Harron. Depending on where and when you first heard about her, you might get a very different person. This Canadian born auteur comes from a family deeply involved in film and theater. As a child, she moved with her mom to England and grew up there. As a student attending Oxford College in the 60’s, she dated Tony Blair, who a few years back served as Britain’s Prime Minister. After graduating, she moved to New York and was part of the 70’s punk rock scene. This part of her life inspired her to help create ‘Punk’ magazine, where she was a music journalist. Later, Mary directed documentaries for the BBC, and was the executive producer for “The Weather Underground” about radical activists of the 1970’s. Mary’s first feature film was 1996’s ‘I Shot Andy Warhol’, the story of Valerie Solanas, a young and brilliant feminist who shot the famous avant-garde filmmaker after feeling overlooked by him and oppressed by a male dominated society. Mrs. Harron was considered a talented up and coming director, until she gained much publicity and notoriety for the controversial film ‘American Psycho’, which she directed and co-wrote the adapted screenplay from the book by Bret Easton Ellis. Her third movie was the well received ‘The Notorious Bettie Page”, about the life of an obscure 50’s pin-up model who was questioned by Congress on indecency law. She has also worked for Late Show, and has directed episodes of the series ‘OZ’, ‘The L Word’, ‘Six Feet Under’, and ‘Big Love’. Her career is long and diverse, and her vision as a filmmaker has evolved to become one of the most interesting and most important female voices from the director’s chair. In an interview in 2006, Harron offered that she was always interested in films but “I didn’t know any women directors, so it seemed not possible …I thought I would write them.” Her expectations of the film industry where as expected: with a lack of role models it just seemed like an impossibility to become a female director. It is no coincidence that her films have captured three different angles of the feminist cause: the feminist frustrated with society, the narcissistic male ego that can exact unprovoked violence on females at whim, and the forgotten story about a female icon. Among the three, Valerie Solanas’ portrayal in 'I shot Andy Warhol' is of a vibrant female voice trapped in a world where she felt that men had too much control of her life.

Solanas wrote The SCUM Manifesto for her own society (SCUM stands for Society for Cutting Up Men), and in the book she has a solution to make a better world: get rid of all the men. In an interview with the Toronto Star, Harron shares her view of the manifesto’s thesis: “Do I believe in cutting up men? No, of course I don't. But do I believe that Solanas was right in observing that society was dominated by men, and to a certain extent still is? Yes, I do." The book inspired Harron to make the movie ‘I Shot Andy Warhol’, in which Valerie’s many brilliant ideas are juxtaposed with her many contradictions: she was a feminist, but also a prostitute; she was a lesbian, but never had a companion; she hated men and the control they had on her, but was in love with Andy Warhol. The movie also functioned as a way to channel her own disillusionment with society, and as a way to establish that she’s here to stay: "I think there were elements of my own frustration and elements of what it was like growing up with an unfair attitude towards women -- and Valerie was an extreme example of that.”

In the film, Valerie’s story is presented as an enjoyable view into a misunderstood character with a relevant cause that would be rendered irrelevant by history outside of feminist circles. According to the movie review by the NYtimes, “The film's greatest directorial success is in finding a thoroughly entertaining way of inviting the audience to share Valerie's point of view.” Valerie had a tough life that ultimately made her a lonely, damaged young lady, and yet, if her life was going to be defined by that infamous shooting, Mary Harron made sure you heard her case. Without Harron’s perspective, Solanas’ story probably would have never been told, or could’ve easily end up as a film about a great artist that was shot by an unstable feminist freak in the time of change that were the late 60’s. The movie starts with the shooting of Warhol’s in 1968, but Harron’s skill is able to shift the focus on the genius of Solanas literature, which read with the proper context, can be taken as a rallying cry for women everywhere.

In her three films, Mary Harron has demonstrated that she’s an auteur that can shine a new light into a subject matter with her directing lens. She can take a character that you didn’t have any clue existed before, and gives them a chance to live forever by painting a portrait that’s both interesting and relevant. This is hard to do for any director, and being a woman in a male dominated field is not stopping her from putting her stamp on her works. By carefully choosing stories that she knows or is interested in, her vision is not compromised and the viewers benefit by getting an invested perspective that’s also different. In her manifesto, Valerie Solanas imagined her SCUM sisters as "dominant, secure, self-confident, nasty, violent, selfish, independent, proud, thrill-seeking, free-wheeling, arrogant females, who consider themselves fit to rule the universe, who have free-wheeled to the limits of this 'society' and are ready to wheel on to something far beyond what it has to offer." I think that any women that wants to make a difference in this male-dominated world, needs to have some of that SCUM attitude in them. Just please, don’t get rid of me when you all take over.

Bussman, Kate - Cutting Edge: Mary Harron talks about sex, violence and satire - The Guardian, March 6 2009:

Cochrane, Kira - Why are there so few female film-makers? - The Guardian, January 31 2010:

D’Arcy, David - ’I Shot Andy Warhol’ Examines Life of Valerie Solanas - Morning Edition on NPR Radio transcript, April 5 1996

Dederer, Claire - Cutting Remarks (Review of the SCUM manifesto) - The Nation, May 27 2004:

Gerstel, Judy - She shot the shooter of Andy Warhol = Toronto Star, May 17 1996

Hornaday, Ann - Women of independent miens: Nicole Holofcener and Mary Harron Prove a Woman's Place Is in the Director's Chair – The Washington Post, April 16 2006

Kaufman, Anthony - 9-Months Pregnant and Delivering “American Psycho,” Indiewire, April 14 2000:

Maslin, Janet – ‘I shot Andy Warhol’ movie review – NY Times, April 5 1996

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