Were the 1980s a golden age for female filmmaking?

A shimmering highlight of this year's EIFF is its American Woman retrospective celebrating female filmmakers of the 1980s. Ahead of the festival, we talk to Smithereens director Susan Seidelman, one of the pioneering female filmmakers of this era

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 28 May 2018

If you haven’t noticed, we’re all obsessed with the 1980s. In all likelihood, the last piece of contemporary pop culture you consumed referenced the decade in some fashion, consciously or unconsciously. Whether it’s Ready Player One in cinemas, Stranger Things on our laptop screens or Carly Rae Jepsen in our earbuds, we’re swimming in homages to the aesthetics of the ‘greed is good’ era; even royal weddings are back in vogue.

It’s no wonder, then, that film programmers are beginning to dust off long-ignored prints from that decade to investigate their riches. Last month at London’s BFI Southbank, an extensive retrospective titled Lost in America: The Other Side of Reagan’s 80s explored the gritty, more personal films that fell through the cracks left by the high octane Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer behemoths, Arnie/Stallone action flicks and Spielberg/Lucas fantasies that dominated the decade. These overlooked classics – like Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue, Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge and Martin Bell's Streetwise – “expose the real 80s America, in all its troubling, fascinating complexity,” argue the retrospective’s programmers.

The upcoming retrospective at the 72nd edition of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, titled Time of the Signs, takes us back to this same period of American cinema and covers similar ground to the BFI season, although the respective programmes only share one title: Smooth Talk, Joyce Chopra’s disquieting study of teen alienation starring a 17-year-old Laura Dern, who's so mesmerising in the lead role that no one could complain about the overlap.

Rather than simply examine the decade’s cinema, EIFF’s aim is to hold a mirror up to these films and consider them in the context of our current climate. "In light of recent events on the other side of the Atlantic,” explains Niall Greig Fulton, the retrospective’s curator, “Time of the Signs is designed to reflect important cultural issues in America today through the cinema of the country's past.”

EIFF’s retrospective splits into three sections – American Exposé: The Media in Mainstream American Cinema; American Nightmare: Horror in Mainstream American Cinema; and American Woman: Female Directors in American Cinema. In this moment of #MeToo and #TimesUp, it’s the latter season that’s the most eye-catching and vital.

We’re all aware of the paucity of opportunities afforded female filmmakers in 2018, and it’s been a similar story since the birth of the moving image, even in the 1970s, the short window of American filmmaking when the money men in Hollywood put their faith in visionary auteurs. Received wisdom tells us that this period, known now as New Hollywood, was a purple patch in American cinema, but not if you were a woman. While the likes of Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola had their run of the studios, female voices struggled to be heard among the macho din. Formidable talents like Barbara Loden (Wanda, 1970), Elaine May (A New Leaf, 1971) and Joan Micklin Silver (Hester Street, 1975) elbowed their way through with smaller projects, but in general women directors were invisible in New Hollywood.

Susan Seidelman on female directors in the 80s

Susan Seidelman, who would make a splash on the lively New York films scene in 1981 with her evocative debut feature Smithereens, recalls the lack of female role models when she was first picking up a camera. “No one talked about it back then, but when I think about when I was in film school, which was the mid to late 70s, I didn’t know about any other women who were directing movies, except for a few in Europe,” says Seidelman from her home in Upstate New York. “[Italian filmmaker] Lina Wertmüller [Seven Beauties, Swept Away], some of her films had just come out in New York, and for me, she was a major inspiration, but I just didn’t know of any other women who were doing that at the time.”

What EIFF’s retrospective seems to suggest is that, counter-intuitively, things marginally improved for women filmmakers in the following decade. The 80s may be thought of as a period when the American auteur died, killed off by the hubris of studio-crippling white elephants like Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate and Coppola’s One From the Heart, replaced with wall-to-wall blockbusters. But looking back with 20-20 vision, it’s clear that the much lamented mid-budget film was still in rude health and an avenue where women were given some opportunities.

Seidelman's celebrated second feature, Desperately Seeking Susan, was one such mid-budget studio feature. “It probably wouldn’t have got made these days,” Seidelman says of her 1985 comedy. “Back in the 80s, the studios were still making lower budget movies. Not as low as the indies, but in that, let’s say, five to ten million dollar range, where they could take a little bit more of a risk because the production budget isn’t so high.”

The Decline of Western Civilization

The likes of Martha Coolidge (Valley Girl, 1983; Real Genius, 1985), Penny Marshall (Jumpin' Jack Flash, 1986; Big, 1988) and Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, 1982 – which screens in EIFF’s retrospective – and 1989's Look Who's Talking) found early career opportunities in such modestly-sized studio projects, while others like Penelope Spheeris (The Decline of Western Civilization, 1981; Suburbia, 1983), Lizzie Borden (Born in Flames, 1983; Working Girls, 1986) and Seidelman would make their mark in the vibrant indie scenes developing on the East and West Coasts.

Based in New York and with no connections in the business, Seidelman had no real aspirations to be a Hollywood director at that time. “I didn’t really think in those terms,” she tells us. “I was only thinking, I love watching foreign films, I love making movies, so I’m going to work in the independent film world.” Smithereens was shot on 16mm film for a measly $40,000, and working small-scale gave her freedom. “It was such a small budget that I could make my own opportunities. I wasn’t asking anyone to hire me. So all the prejudices and all the horrible statistics about the lack of women directing didn’t sink into me until I got more familiar with how the Hollywood industry works.”

Seidelman suggests that this independent spirit might account for the increased prominence of female directors making features in the 1980s, as showcased in EIFF’s retrospective. “As an independent, you’re just working with friends and you’re your own boss,” she says. “And I think if you look at a lot of the movies from the women directors of that time, whether it’s Lizzie Borden or Penelope Spheeris, they weren’t asking anyone to hire them; they were making their own movies. That seemed to me at the time the only way, as a woman, to make a film.”

Taking Smithereens to Cannes, and a changing New York City

We’re speaking to Seidelman in mid-May, and the Cannes Film Festival is in full swing. Debates on the number of female filmmakers competing for the Palme d’Or (three out of 21 this year) and protests about equal pay abound at the French festival. Seidelman certainly knows how Eva Husson, Alice Rohrwacher and Nadine Labaki, the trio of women competing for this year’s Palme d’Or, must feel. Smithereens played in the same competition at Cannes in 1981, and Seidelman was even more outnumbered: she was the sole woman, and was competing alongside aging giants of European arthouse cinema like Jean-Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni and Lindsay Anderson.

Not only was Seidelman breaking ground by being a female filmmaker in a male dominated arena, Smithereens was also the first American indie to play at the prestigious festival. At the time, however, it didn’t feel to her like a landmark moment. “I was very naïve back then,” she laughs. “When the film was accepted into Cannes, I didn’t even know that much about it. I had heard of the Cannes film festival, of course, but I didn’t really know what a big opportunity it was and I didn’t know how it would end up changing my life. Because of the result of the film being accepted I ended up getting an agent and I got some scripts sent my way.”

One of these scripts was Desperately Seeking Susan, Seidelman’s iconic 1985 screwball comedy in which a bored suburban housewife (Rosanna Arquette) hits her head, causing temporary memory loss that results in her mistakenly assuming the identity of the eponymous Susan, a funky bohemian played by Madonna, who at the time of casting was an ambitious singer on the New York club scene who Seidelman would see around the East Village. “Madonna wasn’t acting as Susan, she was Susan,” says the director. The film’s themes of reinvention made it an instant feminist classic.

While Desperately Seeking Susan plays like a fairytale, Smithereens is a much more prickly beast. Seidelman recently watched the film for the first time in decades, at a 35 year anniversary screening at the Metrograph in New York, and she was pleasantly surprised by how well it's stood the test of time. “I was worried it would feel dated or old fashioned or something,” she recalls of the screening. “Certainly the city is very different now, but I wasn’t watching it as nostalgia.”

Pre its 90s makeover, the Big Apple looks like a war zone, with graffiti on every wall and a trash fire on every street corner. The sidewalks and subways may be in need of a hose down, but the people on screen feel mint fresh. “I was surprised with how engaged and how modern the characters felt, and the theme of this main character Wren coming from outside of the city, a boring suburb, and wanting to go into the city to be a part of the action and wanting to reinvent herself. All that still felt kind of relevant to me.”

Wren is certainly a force of nature. The film opens with our spiky heroine pinching a pair of sunglasses straight out of the hands of an unsuspecting yuppie who’s waiting on a subway platform. How could Wren resist? The frame’s black and white checkboard pattern perfectly matches her miniskirt. She’s a wannabe rock star, and we follow her in the opening scene as she pastes photocopied posters of herself on every available surface across New York.

An authentic punk sensibility runs through the film. Wild boy rock star Richard Hell plays one of Wren’s love interests, a handsome bastard who’s clearly hustling our heroine. Hell also appears on the soundtrack with his band the Voidoids, while most of the tracks come courtesy of The Feelies, who Seidelman was introduced to by Jonathan Demme. The film acts as a time machine to this time and place, but it also feels fresh. If you dropped Wren into post-gentrified New York and gave her hair a wash she could be one of the cast of Girls or a new roommate on Broad City.

Seidelman agrees, revealing that at the anniversary screenings in New York she was struck by how well Smithereens seemed to play with the mostly millennial audience who turned out for the film. It’s easy to see why today’s New York youths would identify with Wren, though: she’s as hungry for fame as they are.

“Back then – but maybe even more so today – the idea of wanting to be famous but not having any specific talent, that idea of reinvention, was everywhere,” explains Seidelman. “Back then, a lot of the bands, they weren’t exactly great musically, but they sort of had the energy and attitude that meant they could perform at CBGBs or Max's Kansas City, and in some ways the whole idea of Wren, who’s posting Xeroxed pictures of herself all over the subway, it’s a form of self-promotion that’s not all that different from taking a selfie and posting it on Instagram.”

The film was influenced, says Seidelman, by her experience of being broke and living in a tiny apartment in the East Village. “I made this film about two years after I had graduated from NYU Film School, and the film was made with a lot of my fellow classmates. At the time, NYU Film School was located in the heart of the East Village, and for me it was such an interesting place." It was a city in transition. "The downtown area had been sort of home to this 1960s hippie culture, but towards the mid-70s something new was coming. The music was changing, the punk scene was emerging, there was a cultural shift. Whether it was poetry or painting or music or graffiti art or performance art, they were all kind of blending together. And films were starting to be made that way too, using musicians as actors, and artists were helping out with the production design. There was a cross-cultural blending that definitely influenced the look and feel of Smithereens."

Seidelman's debut plays at EIFF alongside ten other knockout features from the 1980s directed by women. As well as Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Chopra’s Smooth Talk, the eclectic line-up includes Kathryn Bigelow’s poetic vampire movie Near Dark, Donna Deitch’s moving lesbian romance Desert Hearts, Lynne Littman's nuclear holocaust drama Testament and Penelope Spheeris’ vibrant documentary about LA’s punk scene The Decline of Western Civilization. There’s more of New York’s music culture too in the form of Jennie Livingston’s brilliant doc Paris is Burning, and there’s also rarely-screened work from two titans of American experimental cinema: Lizzie Borden and Shirley Clarke with Working Girls and Ornette: Made in America respectively.

Female filmmakers, and the Hollywood 'boys' club'

Like Seidelman, many of the women above would go on to have considerable success in the mainstream. Heckerling would make Look Who's Talking (1989) and teen movie masterpiece Clueless (1995). Spheeris made another punky effort (Suburbia) before directing Wayne’s World (1991) and Little Rascals (1994). As the new millenium approached, however, fewer studio gigs were assigned to these directors. Only Bigalow would build on her mainstream success to continue to regularly direct feature films. It’s worth noting, though, that Bigalow works in the action mode and tends to make films about men (Point Break, The Hurt Locker, Detroit). Might this explain why her career flourished while the opportunities to direct studio films dried up for her peers?

“Hollywood, certainly in the 90s, was very male centric,” says Seidelman, who worked primarily in television throughout that decade, including directing several episodes of Sex and the City. “So being a New Yorker, and not being part of that boys’ club, the studios – and there definitely was a boys’ club – that probably was a disadvantage. But it was kind of a double whammy: being a woman director who wanted to make movies with female characters in the lead.

“There were projects I remember wanting to do but if I brought them out to somebody who was a Hollywood producer, it was always, 'Who’s the male star?' Not that I don’t like to have men in my movies, I do, but certainly as a female director my interest was to try to tell stories that I thought hadn’t been told yet with characters that I thought were interesting in real life, but I hadn’t seen on screen." We get the sense that Seidelman has few regrets: "Maybe if I’d have moved out to LA and done other kinds of movies it would have been a bit easier, but I wanted to make the kind of movies I wanted to make.”

It’s to Hollywood’s shame that filmmakers as fine as Seidelman and her peers weren't given the chance to make more feature films beyond this extraordinary run of creativity in the 80s. The chance to revisit these wonderful movies at EIFF should prove bittersweet. You'll leave the screenings of films like Smithereens and Working Girls enlivened, but asking yourself the nagging question: what could have been?

Reel Girl Film Club and Scalarama present Smithereens (1982), 30 Sep

Edinburgh International Film Festival runs 20 Jun-1 Jul
Female Directors in American Cinema 1980-1990 runs throughout EIFF, with Smithereens screening 21 Jun, 8.40pm.
Ahead of Smithereens' screening, EIFF also present a lecture on Female Directors in American Cinema, and The Skinny host an after-screening party at Festival HQ (Filmhouse) til 3am; head to Facebook for more details