(On the book: “From the Room to Hollywood (The image of the woman artist in the biographical movie)” (Zojder, 2014) by Vesna Damčevska)
Translated from Macedonian by Aleksandra Lazoroska
As a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, every story begins with a single sentence. Being aware of the rule that every good book begins with an excellent opening sentence, Vesna Damčevska begins hers book “From the Room to Hollywood” with a thought-provoking question, by many regarded as insoluble: What do modern women want?
It reminded me of a legend of king Arthur, who was caught hunting in the neighbouring kingdom, so in order to avoid being killed, he had to give an answer to the most difficult question: what do women actually want? He tried to get the answer from the princesses, the queen, the prostitutes, the nuns, the sages and even from the jester, but it was fruitless. His last hope was the old witch, who asked to marry the noblest knight from the Round Table – Sir Gawain – in return for her answer. The witch was humpy, ugly, having only one tooth, a terribly odorous body and was emitting unusual shrieks; but Gawain had decided to sacrifice himself for his friend and for the kingdom. On the wedding day the old witch said: “Every woman would like to be an owner of her life” and everybody realised instantly that she was right. Arthur was saved. But, then came the first wedding night when Gawain was expecting his bride in bed, and marvellously, he welcomed a gorgeous young woman. She told him that half the time she would be a witch and half the time a beauty, and it was he to decide which appearance he preferred for the daytime and which for the night time. Tough choice, you will admit. Should he choose to have a beautiful girl who would make him proud in front of the others during the daytime, and to have an ugly old woman in the intimacy of the bed, or vice versa? What would be your choice?
Wisely, Gawain left the decision up to her. The act takes our story to the expected happy end. He allowed her to be the owner of her life, and as a reward she decided to stay eternally young and beautiful. If you are still wondering what the point of this story is, a humorous male comment says: it does not matter whether a woman is beautiful or ugly, she will always be a witch.
Joking aside, a few centuries after Arthur, this book is supposed to give us Damčevska’s answer. In her quest, she starts from the women’s (in)visibility in the art production through a short survey of the feminist theories, especially of today’s perspective and the increasingly frequent topical questions: Is the feminism fight over? Is it time for emancipation of men? Why on The Times list of two hundred greatest artists of the twentieth century there are only nineteen women? Is it that women do not create great works or is it that they did not have conditions to create (financial independence and a room of their own)? Or is it because the decision about what is a great work is brought by the establishment which mainly consists of man? What is more to be done so that the female art could eventually become equally visible and present, instead of the past man elitism in the history of art? Finally: If the elitist culture of the history of art overshadows women, eliminates them from the archives, excludes them from the canon, does the popular culture offer the way out from such position? I believe that it is her ability to ask the right questions, which, apparently, is rooted in her professional journalistic competence and is equally important when you are working on a scientific research that appears to be the highest quality of this book. Namely, I refer to her master thesis on Cultural Studies in Literature at the Institute of Macedonian Literature in Skopje, which is the basis of this book.
In it, Damčevska particularly tackles the film as a representative of the mass culture, which (is supposed to) make(s) women more visible. She makes a thorough survey on women exploitation in the film art and on the feminine film history only to come to a conclusion that the images of women are yet largely stereotyped. Thus, she approaches her somewhat restricted field of interest – biography and biopic as genres. Biographical films about women artists are yet another subgenre, and these are not numerous, especially when compared to those made about men artists. It is probably here that the attractiveness for their further study and Damčevska’s provocation to tackle them lie hidden. In these films, she locates a few dominant images which she regards as necessary to be decoded/deconstructed: the relationship with the man, their sexuality, motherhood, the body as a representative of the womanhood and its destruction, the feminine nomadism and eventually the suppression of the creative potential and the impossibility for its expression.
Through a competent analysis of the feminine film images and the feminist film aesthetics, Damčevska reaches the central interest of the book, focused on four female biopics: about the Mexican icon, the painter Frida Kahlo, the bell jar authoress Sylvia Plath, the pioneer of the feminist ideology Virginia Woolf and the unconventional artist Diane Arbus. “Biographical films about them can be regarded as feministic, but it is questionable to what point they succeed in it? There, the unequal status of women in male-dominated society is revealed, or women are followed through their pursuit of equality and supremacy. Here, it is not a matter of feminist propaganda films but rather of films where the women’s perspective on the world is stressed and nourished, precise spiritual feelings and demeanours of those women are revealed and the specific feminine culture is followed.”
It is essentially important to point out that Damčevska reads these films critically and indicates that they, as the majority of the Hollywood products, are not as much focused on their artistry as on their private lives, relationship with men, sexuality, motherhood, body, nomadism, schizophrenia etc. as crucial film images much ‘desirable’ for the voyeuristic eye of the (male) spectator. Thus, when it comes to Frida, she accurately declares that the film accentuates the seductive décor around the female artist, her exotic appearance, love, political involvement, and not her being, the pain she suffers and the way this pain is expressed in her art. “She is perceived as a rare bird, even as a grotesque parrot… rather than drawing attention to the woman who dared to enter the men’s sacred space of art expression and adopt it for herself.”The a
uthoress finds the film Sylvia disappointing as well precisely due to the fact that the story inside tells about Plath’s work far less than it tells about her life, love, insecurity, motherhood and eventually death; similarly, or even more drastically than the film about Kahlo, whose visual aesthetics could at least speak highly of it. Once more, there comes Vesna’s excellent question: Is it worth that the only film made about this extraordinarily talented poetess equally deals with the poet Hughes as well?
The Hours about Virginia Woolf can be regarded as a “powerful and authentic public statement in favor of the feminist ‘fight’, not as a feminist pamphlet but rather as a work that makes the real feminine ‘diversity’ heard – diversity that was condemned to silence for many years and centuries. Or, in this case of hours, many hours of silence, life filled with worries for the others, while minding your own life in the least. Hours that go by toughly and painfully in the same manner as is this semibiographical and semi-fictional film tough and painful, and yet more biographical than the rest because it tackles solely the biography of one woman or the women altogether without the ‘irresistibly’ present male competition.” Evidently, Damčevska grasps the values of this movie compared to the others.
Finally, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, a bizarre story lacking emotions and meanings, where the marvellous world Arbus unexpectedly longs to be part of has no charm whatsoever and is even tedious and mundane at times. Apparently, all of the four reviewed films are in favour of the spectacle of rarity and they enhance the romantic notions of the creative women artists.
Hence, the main conclusion that Damčevska draws is: “Regardless of how humble and shy these female examples from the world cinematography of the past ten years are, they bring hope that women’s silence will be overcome in the future as well as that the image of the woman in these film achievements will be redefined and liberated from stereotypes and myths.” The same could go for Damčevska’s feminist research which is a significant contribution to overcoming women’s silence, the opening of new female perspectives on the study of biographical films, and consequently their registration and even canonization in the frames of our cultural science.Going ba
ck to the legend and the question at the beginning of this text, it is clear that this authoress wishes filmmakers would finally shoot a film about a woman artist without transforming it into a romantic melodrama. What I wish for at the moment is that Vesna Damčevska’s book “From the Room to Hollywood” would contribute to an altered perspective on the films we watch. All of us, men and women, could start by asking ourselves, as on Bechdel Test, whether there are at least two female characters included in each film that are not anonymous and talk about anything else but men.