Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movementby B. Ruby Rich, Ruby B. Rich, B. Rubyrich
If there was a moment during the sixties, seventies, or eighties that changed the history of the women’s film movement, B. Ruby Rich was there. Part journalistic chronicle, part memoir, and 100% pure cultural historical odyssey, Chick Flicks—with its definitive, the-way-it-was collection of essays—captures the birth and growth of feminist/i>
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If there was a moment during the sixties, seventies, or eighties that changed the history of the women’s film movement, B. Ruby Rich was there. Part journalistic chronicle, part memoir, and 100% pure cultural historical odyssey, Chick Flicks—with its definitive, the-way-it-was collection of essays—captures the birth and growth of feminist film as no other book has done.
For over three decades Rich has been one of the most important voices in feminist film criticism. Her presence at film festivals (such as Sundance, where she is a member of the selection committee), her film reviews in the Village Voice, Elle, Out, and the Advocate, and her commentaries on the public radio program “The World” have secured her a place as a central figure in the remarkable history of what she deems “cinefeminism.” In the hope that a new generation of feminist film culture might be revitalized by reclaiming its own history, Rich introduces each essay with an autobiographical prologue that describes the intellectual, political, and personal moments from which the work arose. Travel, softball, sex, and voodoo all somehow fit into a book that includes classic Rich articles covering such topics as the antiporn movement, the films of Yvonne Rainer, a Julie Christie visit to Washington, and the historically evocative film Maedchen in Uniform. The result is a volume that traces the development not only of women’s involvement in cinema but of one of its key players as well.
The first book-length work from Rich—whose stature and influence in the world of film criticism and theory continue to grow—Chick Flicks exposes unexplored routes and forgotten byways of a past that’s recent enough to be remembered and far away enough to be memorable.
Women's Review of Books
Ruby Rich. Rich is a journalist whose film commentaries are broadcast on NPR. This collection of essays written in accessible, matter-of-fact style captures the growth, history, and ‘gossip’ of feminist film.
. . . Best of all, Chick Flicks is a highly readable, informal ‘you-are-there’ history of one of the byways of the feminist movement.
Rich’s observations about the politics of feminist scholarship go far beyond the topic of film studies. . . . Chick Flicks, with its multiple contexts and locations, Sundance to Cuba to Edinburgh, demonstrates how widely spaces of theory can be imagined and how inclusive its visions can be.”-
“Ruby Rich reinvents both herself and her approach to film criticism, in a fascinating book that alternates autobiography and theory. She is wise and funny at the same time, never dogmatic, always allowing her discovery process to remain in clear view.”—Roger Ebert
“This collection of writings by B. Ruby Rich is sure to become a classic. She has proven herself to be a courageous guide into uncharted aesthetic and political territory and, in describing so eloquently what she finds there, she does what critics aspire to but rarely achieve: she both educates and entertains.”—Sally Potter, director of the films Orlando and The Tango
“This is a remarkable book. Rich has written a memoir that encourages the reader not only to see the original essays in a new context but also and especially to understand the development of an intellectual and political moment with all of its complications and personal investments.”—Judith Mayne, author of Cinema and Spectatorship
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Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement
By B. Ruby Rich
Duke University PressCopyright © 1998 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Film in the Sixties (1991)
The sixties were the last of the preretro decades, the last time in which it was still possible to live in the moment without worrying that it was actually somebody else's reappropriated moment. The sixties were fundamentally themselves: people lived not only in an absolute sense of present, but in an equally absolute sense of living out a historic present, the "we are making history" approach to contemporaneity.
It was also the last decade in which it was possible to discover the movies, not merely as a medium, but as a primer in how to live, how to love, how to think or smoke or lie. It was in the sixties (and the early seventies as well, because everyone knows that the decades never divide neatly across the cusp anyway) that a whole generation discovered the power of films. There was the sheer force of the medium as newly explored in the American avant-garde. There was the reclaiming of the underbelly of the industry itself, as in the "auteurist" rediscovery of classic Hollywood, the valorization of B movies and the legitimation of Roger Corman. And there was the discovery of a brave new world via what were then called (and still are, by the Academy) "foreign films," meaning the Angry Young Men of Britain, the French New Wave, the Czech products of the Prague Spring, or the scandalous Swedish films that had brought down the censorship barriers once and for all (we thought). Take your pick: it was all about art and meaning, and all about sex. Accept the following musings, then, as my recollection of life in the movies, and vice versa, sixties-style.
The decade started inauspiciously. I was in the seventh grade in 1960 when I walked to the neighborhood movie theater with a classmate, unwarned and unaccompanied, to see Psycho. We spent much of the film with our coats over our heads. I didn't take a shower for the next eight years. The experience initiated my lifelong affection for baths and my lifelong aversion to horror movies. It's commonly said that cinema was never the same after Psycho, but, girl-child on the verge of puberty, neither was I.
My real relationship to movies started in my high school English class. To understand the context fully, keep in mind that English teachers in that period were consumed by a fearful paranoia regarding film and television. In the popular version of history, Khrushchev banged his shoe at the UN and threatened capitalism with impending extinction in the famous statement of confidence: "We will bury you" (today we know he got the sentence right, but the pronouns wrong). The cold war between book learning and image watching was equally heated, even if carried out in the less flamboyant forums of educational classrooms and halls of higher learning. Throughout the United States, teachers of English literature quaked before their students' new viewing habits. They denounced television as a pernicious influence on young minds and cursed movies as mindless entertainment seducing a generation away from the morally uplifting rigors of reading.
In Annette Busse's class at Brookline High School, however, films were recommended alongside books, and we were expected to improve ourselves by paying attention to both. In adolescent circles in those days, a knowledge of European films was as necessary a badge of sophistication as the ability to quote Jean-Paul Sartre, Thomas Pynchon, or Jack Kerouac. But where to see them? Not public television, that's for sure. Our English class was once trucked over to the headquarters of this new place called WGBH-TV to be the test audience for a program on poet Robert Frost, but we left with our noses in the air, contemptuous of the insipid, low-brow approach to poetry as well as to teenagers. Instead, we frequented the commercial "art" houses that were the mainstays of filmgoing in Boston in the sixties. These theaters were so crucial and inspired such fandom in their patrons all over the United States at that time that Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn even dedicated a book, Kings of the Bs, to Chicago's Clark Theatre (1948-70), paraphrasing as testimonial a line from Edgar G. Ulmer: "It wasn't just a theatre.... It was a way of life."
In Boston, film devotion meant chronic attendance at movie theaters like the Brattle, where townies eavesdropped on Harvard boys explaining Bergman films to their dates, or the Charles Street Cinema, where audiences sat shivering in coats and scarves through pre-global-warming New England winters to watch sadistic double bills like Breathless and Les Enfants du Paradis. The double bills were sadistic not just by virtue of length or climate: one that I still recall paired Dr. Strangelove with One Potato Two Potato, the two films linked only because the first ended with a madman riding a bomb out of a plane, while the second opened with a bomber in the air buzzing a man and child down on the ground. At the Exeter Theatre, programming philosophy was even quirkier: only English films were shown, as though that were the only universe that mattered. It was a constant diet of Darling, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, and Morgan!
Such exposure was good training, of course, not just because Boston was always an anglophile town but because Swinging London was the essence of hip in post-1963 America. In the summer of 1965, when I was sent to stay with my father's family in St. Louis as a belated sixteenth birthday gift, I managed to effect a change from high school egghead to the sort of smooth sophisticate eligible for double dates and riverboat rides, simply because I wore a tennis sweater, spoke in my usual Boston accent, and could effortlessly interpret Richard Lester's The Knack, and How to Get It, a briefly emblematic film that had just brought Rita Tushingham to Missouri as the very embodiment of cool. Its director was already famous for putting the Beatles on film the year before. However, its title could just as easily have referred to our motivations for flocking to movies like this. The next year would bring Blow-Up, the movie that sent college boys all over the United States shopping for Nikons and for girls who'd take their clothes off in front of one. Could it be any plainer? If you went to British films, you'd learn the slang, the mores, what was euphemistically called the "knack." If you couldn't actually get laid by going to the right movie theater, you could at least learn how other people did. And you'd also, incidentally, notice that there was a new way of cutting film and setting up the camera and creating characters.
As the counterculture heated up, the hip films began to show up in different ways. Two incidents from 1966-67 stand out in my memory. The first was made memorable not by personal experience (my date fell asleep) but historical import: it was 1966, and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston was presenting a Warhol "happening" with Nico and the Velvet Underground and a projection of Chelsea Girls on multiple screens. We all felt hipper than thou, determined to have the coolest reaction, so I still remember my dismay at overhearing some of the New York camp followers recommending a party ... in Brookline, the place where my parents had moved, the town I'd just escaped in order to come to "happenings" like this.
The second incident is prominent because it involved a memorable loss, that of my favorite jacket. I was climbing the iron fence surrounding the dormitories of Simmons College to evade curfew when my duffle coat snagged and ripped. My friends and I were on our way to the midnight show (one of the first ever) of "underground" films at a local movie house, where I got my first glimpse of Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising. We were ecstatic, not particularly because of the sexual politics (homosexuality didn't interest me yet) but because of the color and the music. We were becoming art school brats and discovering that irony was a very modern emotion, yet we weren't so far advanced in years from the songs that Anger was eulogizing and we already knew (from films, if not life) that motorcycles were cool. After all, we already had boyfriends who rode them. The fact that a film like this could only be seen at midnight was taken as further proof of its significance.
Other films were too hot even for movie theaters, and they had to be tracked down at college campuses, progressive churches, or rented halls. It was at a Boston University sit-in that I first saw Robert Nelson's O Dem Watermelons. Hard as it may be to imagine for anyone who's ever seen this froth of a film, it was received as a "radical" film that denounced racism, and got hundreds of students (yes, mostly White) singing along in solidarity. Hard to believe, but typical of the times. It was at a new college named Goddard, where we'd hitchhiked to visit our friend Turtle, where a friend and I entered a dining hall packed with students watching Tony Richardson's The Loved One, the film that based its advertising campaign on the slogan of having "something to offend everyone." Everyone there laughed, secure in the knowledge that we weren't the people the campaign targeted, we weren't the puritans who could be offended, we were cool.
The bravura of youth combined with the grandiosity of the times: we were convinced that there'd never been anyone like us before, and that the world would never be the same again. Coattailing onto the civil rights movement, we were determined to blast Amerika out of the McCarthy period, small-town provincialism, and cold war lockstep — and into a brave new future. (Remember, back then it was the Republicans who couldn't win presidential elections.) The foreign films and the new kind of American films helped a whole generation believe that self-invention was not only a possibility but a certainty.
In the free will versus predestination sweepstakes, all the bets were on free will and the movies were a means to an end. Sometimes, though, they threw a wrench in the works. After all, gender did not yet figure into the picture. I remember walking through Harvard Square after seeing Une femme est une femme, despondent and existentially depressed, confessing to a friend over cappuccino in a Cambridge coffeehouse that now I was convinced that I would never be a "real" woman. And though it's true that I never did grow up to be Anna Karina, or anybody else French, I was saved by the times. My friend Ruth Kaplan invited me over to hear someone named Betty Friedan speak to her mother's friends about a new idea regarding women; we sat in the kitchen and watched the working wives react angrily. Another friend lent me someone's circulating copy of Simone de Beauvoir. The women's movement came along in the nick of time to rescue me from enforced femininity.
It seemed, in those days, that we lived our lives in the movies, and vice versa. Everyone was movie-mad, and if they weren't, they just weren't worth knowing. My friend Glenn still remembers the first time he saw Breathless and watched, transfixed, as Jean-Paul Belmondo passed a poster of Humphrey Bogart and improvised a Bogie imitation. What a thing to do! It was revelatory, getting this new take on American culture from the French, and I bet he used it on the next girl he approached. My friend Lourdes remembers seeing Weekend at the Claremont Theatre, then braving the consequent trauma of returning home over the L.A. freeways. My friend Joan will never forget crowding into the basement of some church in Harvard Square in 1968 to see The Battle of Algiers. She was so swept away by the crowd, the solidarity speeches, and — especially — the film's scenes of women smuggling bombs for the independence struggle, that she took off for Algeria as soon as she could. But she arrived post-independence, and found the women's organizations shut down by fundamentalism.
Film was like that. It led you to places you wouldn't otherwise go, whether in your own city, your own mind, or another country altogether. It's my friend Debby, New York City brat that she was, who has multiple memories of films gone awry. One night she went to MOMA to see a particularly vicious Chabrol film: the fight onscreen in the opening minutes was echoed by a simultaneous fistfight in the audience and she was so freaked out by the sleazy Chabrolian mood that, afraid to ride the subway home alone, she had to stay at a friend's. Still in high school, she went to a Rockefeller University auditorium for a Jonas Mekas screening; the projectionist didn't know how to focus the film, the audience balked, and Mekas, enraged, took the stage to reprimand his public, paraphrasing Khrushchev while pointing to Debby and pal: "Their generation will bury you!" Finally, when she and her friend Daryl went to France, she remembers journeying all the way to the town of Nevers — only to realize, shocked, that Hiroshima Mon Amour hadn't really been shot there.
As for me, I went to Europe for the first time the summer after I dropped out of college, fully equipped with a student charter flight ticket, a backpack, and a head full of visions from all the movies I'd ever seen. But I ended up ignoring the movie theaters for the streets. I never even got to any Italian films, unless you count the screening in a small town in northern Greece of reels 2, 4, and 6 of Fellini's Satyricon. No, the closest I got to the movies was a black-and-white television in a public square in Florence. I was one pair of eyes in that Italian crowd of thousands that watched, transfixed, as a U.S. astronaut landed on the moon.
The time was 1969 and, with one "small step," the sixties would be over. The movies continued, of course, but they were different. They are no longer quite the transformative experience they used to be. American films came of age, Italian films declined, Sweden eventually gave way to Japan as the epitome of cool, and the gender and race politics that the "counterculture" had neglected finally got center stage. I came of age as well. I went back to college and, inspired by a stint selling popcorn at the college film society, I turned my passion into a profession, with all the pros and cons that turn implies. I don't get epiphanies at the movies much these days. Nor, I suspect, do the astronauts on the moon. But I still maintain my tie to the cinema, not just as a subject of analysis or a repository of codes and genres, but as a way to live, a place to connect, a passion worth fighting over. The sixties are long gone, but the heritage, the memories, and the movies linger on.
Prologue. Hippie Chick in the Art World
In the fall of 1972, I found myself sharing a makeshift loft with my friend Warner and a whole community of would-be art boys on one half of the sixth floor of a downtown industrial building in Chicago. The other half was rented by an Indian incense factory, which one day caught fire and would have burned down the whole place, had we not interceded and fetched the firemen, running the two blocks to the firehouse to get them. We became hometown heroes to our landlord and fellow tenants, but nearly blew our cover: it was the very beginning of Chicago's loft era, living there was illegal, and we were pretending it was just our working studio. Lacking the carpentry skills of my roommates, I set up camp, literally, in a parachute that I pitched like a circus tent around a wooden column in the middle of the space. It was hung inside with flowered cloths, had bed and pillows on the floor and an overall decor that drew its inspiration half from my idea of a New Orleans bordello, half from the better-known aesthetic of the seventies crash pad.
The whole loft was fantastical: we invented it much as we were inventing our lives. There were dinner parties by candlelight, which were served on the Oriental-carpet-covered floor of the freight elevator as we took turns pulling the manually powered ropes that hauled us up and down in our vertical imitation of a cruise line. We had shining copper radiators, transformed by purloined paint from the metallic paint company that did business upstairs but conveniently stored its paints in the basement, thus accessing a fortune in pigment to be splashed luxuriously over the antiquated delivery system of our inadequate hand-shoveled coal furnace (no heat on weekends or evenings). The school's graduate division would use our loft for its periodic student bashes, thereby allowing us to meet our rent payments and hold onto the place, which in the process witnessed performances by most of Chicago's blues legends in the two years of our residence.
Excerpted from Chick Flicks by B. Ruby Rich. Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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B. Ruby Rich is a cultural critic and journalist whose writing has appeared in both the popular and academic press for more than two decades. She publishes in the Village Voice, Elle, Sight and Sound, Time Out New York, OUT, the Advocate, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian, while her film commentary is carried on national public radio. A former program officer at the New York State Council on the Arts, she is a member of the Sundance Selection Committee and is currently an Associate Professor, adjunct, at the University of California, Berkeley.
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