Sundance, the Oscars and the Decline of Film Criticism—Not Just a Lady Problem
A worker paints bleachers while preparing the red-carpet arrivals area for the 85th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California, February 21, 2013. Reuters/Lucas Jackson
One look at this year’s Oscar nominees reveals the indelible mark independent film has made on popular culture. The Sundance Film Festival, in particular, has been responsible for the rise of American cinema’s most renowned contemporary directors, from Steven Soderbergh to Todd Haynes. Beasts of the Southern Wild screened to audiences for the first time a year ago at Sundance. Quentin Tarantino was discovered there with Reservoir Dogs. Ben Affleck gained prominence first as a star of Kevin Smith’s films. All of the documentaries nominated for an Academy Award this year played at Sundance.
Two brilliant nominees, The Gatekeepers and 5 Broken Cameras, along with other recent documentaries, have deepened our understanding of the conflict.
David France’s How to Survive a Plague, Heidi Ewing and Rache Grady’s Detropia, Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage.
But this robust pipeline between Sundance and Hollywood has been conspicuously male. Where are the women of Sundance?
Twenty-thirteen was supposed to be a year of celebration for women at the festival. For the first time, Sundance’s prestigious film competition reflected parity between male and female directors. This was capped by a Sundance Institute/Women in Film study that triumphantly declared: “More Women in Independent Film Than Hollywood.”
Then the film reviews came in—and these ginger steps forward were thrown a few slaps back. Critics almost exclusively eviscerated the feature films directed by women that premiered at Sundance this year. Across the board, reviews of women-directed films in the top trade publications consistently:
• Paid less sustained and thoughtful attention to the films’ craft (visual style, narrative structure, character development). Storylines were characterized as “shallow,” “naggingly lightweight” and “desperate“—in contrast to the descriptions of male-directed films, which were lauded for their lyricism, “feminine…sensibility” and “complex symphonic framework.”
• Presented contradictory and confused assessments of the films’ future success. Films were at once described as “too commercial,” “formulaic,” “conventional” or “derivative”; then had their mainstream viability questioned because they were “tonally uneven” stories that defied traditional genre norms.
• Bemoaned the absence or marginality of male characters, often faulting films for “off-putting” or unlikeable female protagonists, whose authenticity and believability were questioned. One reviewer claimed the director used men as “accessories” in her film. Ironic, to say the least.
• Based their evaluation of the films that explored female sexuality on how sufficiently the (male) reviewer was “satisfied” with the story—a rather twisted resistance to the films’ efforts to foreground female desire (e.g., “satisfactory enough to reach any kind of memorable climax”).
• Were shorter in length—by almost a third—than reviews of films directed by men (see Hollywood Reporter’s review of Touchy Feely, for example).
This highly gendered evaluation is a deeply embarrassing reflection of the current state of film criticism and bodes ill for the future of independent film and popular culture at large. Are film critics able to keep up with the complexity and provocations put to screen by independent female filmmakers? Or, like the porn-obsessed protagonist of Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Don Jon’s Addiction, are male film critics afraid of real women and what they do to stories in the shadows and light of cinema?
If the hallmark of independent film is the originality of storytelling practices and cinematic styles, what happens to our film culture when so many film critics grossly misread the cinematic choices and approaches of female directors? For example, when a drama get mistaken for a comedy—and then faulted for not being funny enough and too serious.
The public misreading of these films has monetary and cultural consequences. Critics decide what’s “good” and who will be lauded as an auteur. Distributors determine a film’s worth and whether to put it on DVD or in a theater near you—or not.
Festivals are more than glamorous events grabbing at sponsorship and celebrity. They are not just filtering systems that carve thousands of films down to nice, juicy slates for critics and industry execs to nosh on. Festivals that support independent filmmakers do so by creating points of access through which audiences—including industry professionals—understand and value different kinds of storytellers. Festival curators can provide the context, framework and language necessary to make trends and innovations in contemporary filmmaking legible. It is unfortunate that the traditionally 250-word descriptions of films in the Sundance film guide (traditionally written by festival programmers) this year were replaced with twenty-five-word blurbs and blank space.
Almost two decades ago, Susan Sontag wrote about the death of cinema and cinephilia as it transformed under technological shifts. Now these technologies have pried open the means of filmmaking just enough to reflect a wildly broad spectrum of stories and perspectives in our society. But the current state of film criticism is clumsily fumbling around these rich and subversive cinematic sensibilities.
Anyone invested in the evolution and vibrancy of independent film needs to worry when a critic at a major trade publication uses the word “stupid” to characterize a film. What is the cost of this decaying mode of criticism to the future vitality of American cinema? We need ways to engage films that challenge independent cinema and compel innovation and growth. This is no longer just about gender equality in the film industry—this is a make-or-break moment for independent film as a field and its relevance for popular culture at large.
Check out The Nation’s reviews of Oscar-nominated films: Roane Carey on The Gatekeepers and Five Broken Cameras, Stuart Klawans on How to Survive a Plague, Michelle Dean, Katha Pollitt and JoAnn Wypijewski on Zero Dark Thirty and Jon Wiener on Lincoln.