Jan 26, 2015

42. Update to entry "Update: How many women filmmakers are represented on the National Film Registry?"

With the announcement of the 2014 additions to the National Film Registry, we can add a short update to the question previously addressed here in 2010 and updated here in 2014.

How many women filmmakers are represented on the National Film Registry?

The three titles added this year bring the total, by my count, to 42 (out of 650).

The newly registered films include two little-known shorts and a better known silent feature that was long unavailable until its digital restoration was completed in 2010.  Shoes (1916), directed and written by Lois Weber at Universal, merits a place in the canon. Unmasked, co-directed by its co-stars Grace Cunard and Francis Ford, is a rediscovered one-reeler made at Universal the following year. Animator Lisze Bechtold's artful short Moon Breath Beat (1980) was added to enrich the list of student films on the Registry.

Shoes (1916) 
The Library of Congress press release:
Renowned silent era writer-director Lois Weber drew on her experiences as a missionary to create Shoes, a masterfully crafted melodrama heightened by Weber’s intent to create, as she noted in an interview, "a slice out of real life." Weber’s camera empathetically documents the suffering her central character, an underpaid shopgirl struggling to support her family, endures daily—standing all day behind a shop counter, walking in winter weather in shoes that provided no protection, stepping on a nail that pierces her flesh. Combining a Progressive Era reformer’s zeal to document social problems with a vivid flair for visual storytelling, Weber details Eva’s growing desire for the pair of luxurious shoes she passes each day in a shop window, her self-examination in a cracked mirror after she agrees to go out with a cabaret tout to acquire the shoes, her repugnance as the man puts his hands on her body, and her shame as she breaks down in tears while displaying her newly acquired goods to her mother. The film, which opens with pages from social worker Jane Addams’s sociological study of prostitution, was acclaimed by Variety as "a vision of life as it actually is ... devoid of theatricalism."
Before the restoration was done, Shelley Stamp (UC Santa Cruz) gave a great "Orphans 3" presentation in 2002, which she entitled “Shoes and The Unshod Maiden, or Giving Progressive Cinema a Good Talking To: Unmaking and Restoring the Films of Lois Weber.” The symposium screened the Library of Congress's 35mm print of the painfully odd comic cutdown of Shoes, which Universal released in 1932 as The Unshod Maiden. Its ten minutes of visuals are all taken from Weber's 1916 film; its soundtrack consists of a wisecracking male voiceover making fun of the supposedly dated movie and the unfortunate heroine, a poor shop girl who sells her virtue to the villain in exchange for decent shoes. Like many of these sound-era studio reworkings, The Unshod Maiden treats silent movies as if they were an ancient phenomenon, even though talkies were still new. Such a perspective is more understandable in later lampoons, like Richard Fleischer's "Flicker Flashbacks" series of the 1940s. But for 1932 it sounds odd. The Unshod Maiden is especially painful to listen to because Shoes is a powerful expose and touching melodrama. It also ends on a truly bizarre line. As we see the lead character, Eva (played by Mary MacLaren), looking forlorn in the aftermath of her encounter with the cad, Cabaret Charlie, The Unshod narrator quips "And that's how Mary learned to play the saxophone." Is it an absurd non sequitur? or a suggestive double entendre?

Here is EYE’s trailer for the Shoes restoration.

And here is Rob Byrne's essay about Shoes for the 2011 San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Unmasked (1917) co-directed by and co-starring Grace Cunard.
The Library of Congress press release:
At the time Unmasked was released, Grace Cunard rivaled daredevils Pearl White ("The Perils of Pauline") and Helen Holmes ("The Hazards of Helen") as America’s Serial Queen. In the film, Cunard is a jewel thief pursuing the same wealthy marks as another thief played by Francis Ford, brother of director John Ford and himself a director and character actor. Cunard, in the mode of many women filmmakers of that era, not only starred in the film, but also wrote its script and parlayed her contributions into a directorial role as well. Produced at Universal Studios, the epicenter of female directors during the silent era, Unmasked reflected a style associated with European filmmakers of the time: artful and sophisticated cinematography comprised of complex camera movements and contrasting depths of field. With a plot rich in female initiative and problem-solving, Cunard fashioned a strong character who does not fit the image of traditional womanhood: she relishes her heists, performs unladylike physical exploits, manipulates court evidence, carries on with a man who is not her husband and yet survives the film without punishment. In essence, the character Cunard created echoed the woman behind the camera.  
Grace Cunard

The film -- not yet online -- was preserved by George Eastman House and with the New York Women in Film and Television's Women’s Film Preservation Fund. Thanks to Antonia Lant, who brought Unmasked to the attention of the NFPB, the NYU Department of Cinema Studies recently screened a digital copy, with an improvised piano score by Stephen Horne, who played for the film sight unseen. 

Moon Breath Beat (1980)
The Library of Congress press release:
Lisze Bechtold created Moon Breath Beat, a five-minute color short subject, while a student at California Institute of the Arts under the tutelage of artist and filmmaker Jules Engel, who founded the Experimental Animation program at CalArts. Engel asked, hypothetically, "What happens when an animator follows a line, a patch of color, or a shape into the unconscious? What wild images would emerge?" Moon Breath Beat reveals Bechtold responding with fluidity and whimsy. Her film was animated to a pre-composed rhythm, the soundtrack cut together afterward, sometimes four frames at a time, to match picture with track, she says. The dream-like story evolved as it was animated, depicting a woman and her two cats and how such forces as birds and the moon impact their lives.  
As an animated student film made at CalArts, this work is a Registry sister to Helen Hill’s great short Scratch and Crow (1995).

It should be noted that four members of the National Film Preservation Board -- John Ptak, Caleb Deschanel, Ben Levin, and Simon Tarr -- researched student films, created a database of several dozen nominees for the Registry, and got several universities and filmmakers to put them on a Vimeo site for the Librarian of Congress and the NFPB to study.