October 2009


La Maternelle

La Maternelle

“[The spectator] won’t be touched at all if you don’t show him life.
If you showed him things of conventional morality, etc., he won’t be moved, you will make no impact, it will have no effect….”
~ Marie Epstein (Flitterman-Lewis 152

With this we dive straight into the brilliantly avant-garde ‘moral’ films of Mary Epstein. As all of the text point to Epstein’s impact on cinema as well as her own work have been largely marginalized. However through the readings, by Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, which attempt to re-write history to include this extremely intriguing figure of cinema history, it becomes evident that, while she may have been rather modest and not extremely bothered by this marginalization, she was a trite and true auteur of early sound cinema. In a quote from Epstein included in Flitterman-Lewis’s text she even stated that as she made the switch from acting to direction etc., she was “very happy to approach the cinema from the standpoint of mise en scène.” (Flitterman-Lewis 150) And furthermore what made her auteurist contributions to the cinematic ‘art’ (as it is obvious she was of similar mind as the directors discussed in prior essays in the belief of cinema as an ‘art’), had a decidedly, and distinctive, ‘feminist identity.’

This feminist ideal that seemed to leak into all of the work that she put out with collaborator Jean Benoît-Lévy through the 1930’s was, as Flitterman-Lewis stated, “a concern with childhood and social conditions, with women who struggle with difficulties in daily life, and with parental relationships.” (Flitterman–Lewis 153) According to the text, Epstein, from the beginning of her behind the scenes career as a scenario writer, assistant, editor etc. she continually upheld a certain association with the ‘feminine ideology.’ Through this, and in conjunction with Benoît-Lévy, she produced a good number films purveying such an ideology. Through all of the films that the two of them produced on a “perfectly egalitarian basis” (Flitterman-Lewis 151) they strived to show the audience ‘life’ in it’s natural form. Benoît-Lévy had spent most of his time prior to the making of these films working on mainly documentary educational film, which provided him with a likening toward natural settings etc. that lent itself quite well to the luminescent and poignant social drama that the two of them were producing.

In general also the two of them worked to produce films that enlightened what Flitterman-Lewis constantly refers to as a ‘reverse Oedipal’ effect, where instead of having the character/emotional focus on the male child’s attachment to the parental figure it is most often the female child’s attachment to the mother. Through this the two collaborative directors truly opened minds to the female perspective and ‘desire.’ Their films often “deal with complex interpersonal relationships among females.” (Flitterman-Lewis 164) These films were often also ‘microcosms’ of society, not only providing the viewer with the new feminine perspective but also unflinchingly enlightening them to many different social and socioeconomic dilemma of the time. Along with this the directorial duo was also known for many different beautiful visual innovations as well as their avant-garde ways of progressing story. Many of their films were said to posses well executed POV cinematography as well as a brilliant use of extreme close-up, composition, and a certain effective and gorgeous neo-silent sensibility.

And according to the text (I can’t say having only seen the following) none of their films represent all of these ideals better than their moving 1933 sound picture La Maternelle, on which Flitterman-Lewis has written a whole chapter in order to try and encompass all of the innovation and brilliance of this work. For the moment I will set aside my personal reaction to the film in order to attempt to convey the ideas put forth in this chapter, and in the following section, I will try and relate this reaction to my own personal thoughts. The focus of Flitterman-Lewis’s chapter is an investigation into the ‘dramas’ and ‘maternal relationships’ associated with main character Marie (Paulette Elambert).

Through her discussion of the film Flitterman-Lewis keep returning to a few main points. These main points, all in accordance with the aforementioned overarching investigations, are as follows; she consistently discusses the ways in which Epstein/Benoît-Lévy utilized certain techniques in order to create a psychological connection to the character and the ways in which the editing style and music collaborated in order to assist in the expression of abandonment (or perceived abandonment). Through this discussion Flitterman-Lewis focused quite a bit of the different editing techniques as well as a tendency toward extreme close-ups of not only faces by allegorical body parts and physical expressions. This is a rather interesting point, and along side the use of rapid editing and cutting between the different characters, as Flitterman-Lewis argues, created a rather relatable and engrossing atmosphere. The most extreme example of this that is discussed in this text is the attempted suicide and the lead up to this action.

Through her discussion of this Flitterman-Lewis focused on the ways in which this sequence draws the viewer into Marie’s ‘fantasms.’ This is achieved, as Flitterman-Lewis argues, through the rapid editing, and the superimposition not only of allegorical abandonment scenes from the film, but also superimposed scenes from Marie’s imagination. Through this it’s argued that the viewer crosses the bounds and is hence placed within the imagination and POV of Marie, i.e. the lines between Marie and the viewer are blurred effectively breaking the ‘fourth wall.’

Since the topic of the end has been breached through my discussion of the text, I feel this is an opportune place to begin my analysis. With this final scene Epstein/Benoît-Lévy truly brought the ‘primal action’ (as Flitterman-Lewis might say) of the film to its climax. This scene, which brilliantly, as is discussed through the text, brings the maternal, yearn to intense heights, does in many ways blur the lines between the viewer and the protagonist of Marie. One of the most striking results of this is the simple fact that once the rapidly edited montage of Marie’s POV ‘fantasms’ begin and the viewer is brought further in as Marie tries harder and harder to destroy these symbols of her escaped desire, her reasoning’s become almost subjective to the mind of the viewer.

The statement above is rather broad, and possibly a tad confusing, so I will clarify a bit. At this moment, the viewer has been witness to much of the misfortune, abandonment and depravity of Marie’s life. We, as the viewers, also have our own personal feelings about the ways in which things have and will play out, so in a way, while Epstein/Benoît-Lévy certainly have their agenda, and I don’t argue that this has been effectively portrayed throughout, through our own subjectivity, we form different opinions about the motivation of Marie’s leap into the water. Through our class discussion and reading some reactions in the text, it’s become obvious that a certain connection to the character and a slight ambiguity, have created the perfect viewer/protagonist connection through which, I propose, the viewer places his/her own subjective motives onto Marie.

Some have speculated about a complete exhaustion being her motivation, some have stated that possibly she was chasing after the allegorical boat (which seems to carry all of her maternal figures away from her (a connection to be discussed further later on)) and still others have speculated that she possibly knew what she was getting herself into when she leaped to her probably demise. However, my own subjective position supposes that as she has exhausted all possible means to destroy the superimposed images (which brilliantly aren’t reflections at all and cannot be broken in conventional ways) that flicker quickly from present to past to fantasy, that in the end she feels as if all there is left to do is throw herself at them.

Through this I propose that she feels as if she has played a passive role in the loss of her mother (Sylvette Fillacier) and further she feels as if the new saintly maternal figure of Rose (Madeleine Renaud) is swiftly escaping her grasp, and at this point she feels as if everything has been taken from her as she passively objected, and now she’s had enough. Through the act of jumping she is throwing herself whole-heartedly and aggressively at the situation and the imagined visual materialization of the problem, i.e. this is her last act of desperation, but not as implied by a conventional suicide attempt, but as a naïve childish attempt to no longer hold back and watch as she is bombarded with images of desire lost and growing out of reach (being ripped from her), but to lash out.

But, at this moment I digress in order to address some of the many other inspired aspects to this multifaceted film. First and foremost to further discuss Marie’s maternal desire, it seems apt to bring up the hyper sexualized relationships between her and such figures. Through our extended introduction and courtship with Marie it becomes clear that she has grown up in a hyper sexualized world. In this world she has watched as her gender ‘role model’ maternal figure, utilized her sexuality in order to attain the things she ‘desired.’ So, it only makes sense that through the naïve perspective of an impressionable young woman this example would serve as the prototype for her own attempts at attaining her goals. Through this we see Marie expressing herself and her desires for Rose, however innocent they may be, in a rather ‘mature,’ jealous, uncomfortably sexualized manor. In a way she seems to have a sort of ‘sexual’ attachment to Rose, however, when taking all aspects into effect, it becomes obvious that she has been conditioned to express herself, and her ‘feminine desires’ in a sensual way.

Along this vein there is a certain imposed innocence upon the children of La Maternelle. At many different junctures the adult figures seem to act in ways that suggest that they have their own naïveté as to what they believed the children understood. On this subject there are two specific examples that exemplify my point; the symbolic ‘chair’ and the scenes where Marie actually had contact with her mother. Firstly the ‘musical chair’ motif is one that provides a blatant and brilliant instance of this concept, in the way that whenever anything, child or handbag (which in a way takes the place of our smile deficient co-protagonist (as many of the characters assume the protagonist role at one point or another)), rests in the chair a certain innocent melody is projected, as the adults whisper and discuss ‘mature’ themes and the ways in which these themes effect the children, as if they aren’t there. Interestingly enough not much of anything is said in the absence our beloved smile deficient character, and in fact we don’t even get to see the face of his mother, however, this is one of the more poignant uses of the innocent nursery rhyme melody as it lilts eerily emphasizing the silence, adding a excruciating commentary about the sad society in which they live.

Before further addressing some of the stylistic touches that embody the spirit of the film, two specific motifs must be addressed; the motif of the boat and the motif of the mouse. First, the motif of the boat; the viewer is first introduced to this motif as Marie and her mother look into the window at a miniature of a cruise ship as the maternal figure is being pursued by the male suitor who will eventually steal her from Marie. The editing in this scene is brilliant, as they look at this symbol of ‘escape’ and ‘voyage elsewhere’ alone, and then with swift editing the male figure imposes himself into this ‘picture,’ seemingly providing a metaphor, he is the mothers ‘boat,’  her escape. This motif is continued throughout the film as Marie and Rose find themselves in the same position as Dr. Libois (Henri Debain) shadows the two of them attempting to court Rose. And, the finale of this motif is that of the suicide scene, which is the ultimate culmination of the continued metaphor. As Marie perceives herself as abandoned by all of her maternal figures, the loves of her childhood, she finds herself at the docks, where a couple expresses sensual and emotional connection through affection with the back drop of a boat, and thus begins the montage of abandonment sparked by the catalyst of the boat motif.

The second motif I wish to remark upon is that of the mouse. This motif is slightly less emphatic, as it is only really approached at two separate intervals. In the beginning of the film we are introduced to Marie as she feels a deep empathy for a captured mouse, which the seemingly oblivious Mme Paulin (the head housekeeper of the school, who helps and works alongside Rose, played by Mady Berri) burns it in the fire of the stove. While this is a seemingly insignificant action, the metaphorical ramifications upon Marie are strong. This mouse is an allegorical representation of the children of the ‘school;’ unwanted, dirty, naïve and ultimately expendable. Marie’s empathy toward this creature speaks to her concepts of self worth, and her connection to such a creature is solidified in one of the final scenes of the film.

After her ‘suicide attempt’ Marie’s new perceived ‘nemesis’ Dr.  Libois shows up to tend to her. It’s at this point that it becomes obvious that Paulin isn’t quite as oblivious as once thought. Knowing of Marie’s connection to mice, she tells the doctor to ‘rescue’ a mouse from her in order to attain Marie’s trust and love, which he does, and the desired effect is attained. This solidifies the fact that Marie associated the mouse with herself. She saw the doctor as someone who would ‘thrown her away’ in pursuit of Rose, just as other men had tossed her aside in  order to ‘have’ her mother. Thus with this action, saving the mouse, the doctor showed that he placed value upon all life, and showed that he wasn’t one to throw out the ‘damaged’ or somewhat ‘unappealing’ in order to achieve a goal.

The last aspect of the film I wish to briefly touch on in conclusion is the ways in which all of these different aspects were stunningly conveyed through radiant cinematic/cinematographic technique. From abstraction to well done point of view to the voyeuristic to odd and meaningful use of camera angle, Epstein/Benoît-Lévy have succeeded in heightening the power of this film. In particular the use of extreme close up had a profound effect upon my impression of the film. Whether it was hands in delicate embrace, faces in agony or piety (an aspect that seemed rather Dreyer-esque to me), or a allegorical fist crashing down on a door, this technique succeeded in playing with and upon my emotions, further adhering  me to the narrative and it’s main players.

Reference

Flitterman-Lewis, Sandy. To desire differently feminism and the French cinema. New York: Columbia UP, 1996. Print.
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Mrs. Dorothy Davenport Reid (AKA Mrs. Wallace Reid)

Mrs. Dorothy Davenport Reid (AKA Mrs. Wallace Reid)

“… as the definition of filmmaking shifted away
from the feminine realm of art and toward the masculine realm of industry,
not just these, but all women in the industry, lost ground.”

~ Karen Ward Mahar (191)

With the readings for this week, a few trends continued. First of all Mahar continued to present a compelling story of an ever evolving Hollywood system and the ways in which it continued to slowly nudge powerful and fully capable women out of prominence. Acker continued to passionately and lovingly provide the reader with a well put together list of the brilliant and mostly forgotten women of the cinematic world. And, Anthony Slide continued in telling a tragic story. In this weeks readings especially, I found that Slide seemed to under evaluate the women he felt such drive to tell the story of.

Especially in the reading regarding Nell Shipman, and more importantly Mrs. Dorothy Davenport Reid (i.e. Mrs., Wallace Reid) and Frances Marion, I found Slide’s descriptions and discussions especially troubling. While all of other readings as well as the documentaries have painted these women in a very influential and positive light, Slide seems to sort of glaze over them and their influence. While it is obvious he believes that these women deserve mention, at times he seemed slightly glib, and with Mrs. Reid he even made some assertions, that all seem to be based upon heresy and his possibly misguided intuition. However, taking into account Slide’s trailblazing nature in the field, and the fact that through out the readings his text provides countless interesting and intriguing quotations compiled through his interviews as well as research into the periodicals of the time, he does provide some very important insight.

In particular I enjoyed Slide’s chapter on Margery Wilson, who seems fascinating. While we may have touched on it either in one of our discussions or as a part of one of the documentaries, I found it fascinating that she (or at least she claimed to have) been the first director to use all settings. I specifically found it intriguing to her it in her own words, “I was the first person who ever made a film – not the Italians, not The Bicycle Thief, but Margery Wilson was the first person to make a film without a studio, without a single set.” (Slide, 77)

In addition to Slide’s text, I found Mahar’s text especially informative and well written. For me this is the text that had the most resonance. The way in which Mahar gave a complete birds-eye view of the ‘setting’ of early Hollywood, was extremely helpful in building a timeline and mental image of the time. With the last few chapters of her book, Mahar leads the reader down a narrowing tunnel of opportunity for women in Hollywood. With the rise of the producer system as well as a focus on the theater as experience rather than strict avenue for viewing motion pictures came the fall of the director/star systems, Hollywood started to become (as stated in the introductory quote) an ‘industry.’ And with the ushering in of the new industry came a drastic trend toward masculine nature and efficiency.

With these system on the rise, and the major labels control, through vertical integration and bullying tactics, of the most prominent theaters, the once popular, profitable, and prosperous independents found themselves having to shut their doors, offering even less opportunities for women to achieve distinctive and gainful employment within the industry. In fact many of the women who had helped to shape the way for the current state of cinema were pushed out, to make way for the strictly commercial and capital business machine that Hollywood was working toward. Almost immediately most women producers were edged out, and fairly quickly the number of women in any sort of creative or important position dwindled (with some exceptions such as Dorothy Arzner and Frances Marion for example).

In the end as Mahar paints it, the true final blow was in the introduction of Wall Street and investment bankers. With the end of the war (WWI) and the ‘brief recession’ investing in Hollywood seemed somewhat sound. While certainly the motion picture business has taken some hits, it seemed to be an inherently profitable business, and hence investors were eager to ‘dig in.’ However, there investments came with many strings attached, and the investors wanted to see Hollywood gain some supreme efficiency (Weber was even quoted (and paraphrased in Mahar) saying that “her methods sacrificed efficiency for art” (191)) and a certain ‘old boy club’ professionalism, which spelled out the beginning of a hiatus for most women in most cinematic professions.

As far as the Acker readings went, once again, she has provided an extensive list, that only goes to show that there are and have been women working in all aspects of film since it’s creation. These readings for me are almost mind-blowing and extremely overwhelming, with the number of women, and the many ways that they are contributing. She provides such broad examples, from writers to editors to producers to directors to stars, and the most intriguing part about it is the different backgrounds from whence they have all come. These amazing women have come from different socioeconomic status, education and experience, just to name a few of the factors. Some of them even came from different art forms, many of them theater, and a few novelists.

However I digress in order to return to the two filmmakers in focus this week, writer Frances Marion and the multifaceted Mrs. Reid. First and foremost, I will talk about Reid, because talking about Marion will go well with talking about the related documentary. Mrs. Wallace Reid (or Dorothy Davenport), who unsuccessfully retired multiple times (she couldn’t stay away), got her start in through acting in her mother’s theater group, quickly moved to motion picture acting, where she quickly gained popularity. However she ended up taking a hiatus when she met and married her husband, Wallace Reid. When Mr. Reid succumb to a drug addiction (morphine) and past away, Mrs. Wallace Reid jump started her career again, making the film Human Wreckage (1923), which she stared in and of which she also had her hands in the direction and writing.

Although Slide makes some assumptions about her using her husband’s death to her advantage, there is really no evidence that she was such a cold-hearted person (although it did work out for her). Through the rest of her career, similarly to Dorothy Weber, she utilized the cinema to present depictions of moral cautionary tales, however some of them not as judgmental. For instance the film we watched for class this week, Linda (1929), which seemed to be all over the place with it’s moral compass.

Through this film, Reid expresses a mass variety of different moral stances, and the viewer at times is not sure what to think is the morally ‘just’ choice. Throughout the film the main character Linda (Helen Foster) is placed into many different dilemma and goes through so many different transforming changes it’s a tad difficult to decipher Mrs. Reid’s moral agenda. However this in and of itself is partially part of Reid’s agenda from her directorial pulpit. She places an entirely loveable character, angelically lit showing her initial ‘saintly manor,’ and sends the character though many different challenges, all set in the town named with brilliant irony, “Freedom ridge.”

First and foremost this is most definitely a film that calls into question the different ideals of the more traditional country ‘folk’ and the more ‘modern’ (‘new woman’) city dwellers. This disparity starts right at the beginning of the film, with the subtle, yet obviously foretelling presence of the teacher, Annette Whitmore (Bess Flowers). This character has been placed into the story as the viewer’s introductory contrast, immediately noticeable because of the use of clothing. When we are introduced to her, she is shown in a fashionable button up white shirt with a black tie. This instantaneously sets her apart from the country children in a stark visual contrast. We are then introduced further to Linda, who is sitting in a tree far from the other children, reading a book, which already sets her apart from the rest of her family and the surrounding population. Not only does Linda have the ability to read but she also has an aptitude and enjoyment of reading.

However right there in the tree is where we witness the origin of our first intense plot twist (of which the film has many), with the entrance of the amiable and good-natured dullard woodsman Armstrong Decker (Noah Beery). With this the stage is set for the tragedy soon to ensue. The only thing left is the entrance of yet another conflicting character comparison, that of Decker, who wishes to marry Linda (a wish Linda’s no good abusive father (Mitchell Lewis) is happy to facilitate in exchange for the sale of his lumber), and the good doctor Paul Randall (Warner Baxter) who just happens to live next door (but not for long). Through a misunderstanding Linda believes that this is the man she is to marry, and thus introduces a ‘dream’ into Linda’s head.

In order not to stray too far into plot summary, we can just say that Linda’s life from this moment on is not easy. In true martyr fashion she gives her freedom and marries Decker (even though she initially fought it, in a dramatic and rebellious move, denying an authority figure, very ‘new woman’) to save her mothers life, which becomes a mute point right as she says ‘I do.’ This tragic event is shown through a brilliant intercut, where Reid focuses interestingly on the hands of the man and wife to be, and just as the rings are exchanged cuts to Linda’s mothers quick death scene.

After this scene Linda is shown in an entirely new light. Her carefree pigtails are cut and now she conservatively sports her hair up. Along with this change in hair there’s also a change in her air, she seems immediately weighted down, by her loving and well-intentioned burden. In another plot twist the now pregnant Linda is forced to run as a woman claiming marriage to Decker appears out of no where. This is an interesting plot twist because now our heroine is placed into the role of single mother.

But, what happens next is possibly one of the biggest and most intriguing plot twists. Having had Decker’s child she decides that education is necessary in order to bring the full glory of motherhood, and leaves the child behind (in the care of the traveling saleswoman) to reconnect with Annette Whitmore. And once again, Linda is fully transformed before the viewer’s eyes, from free spirited country child to unfulfilled country wife to scared single mother and now to educated ‘new woman.’ Through all of the film Linda is precariously shown is a veil of white light as she dreams of a future similar to the present she is living in this new stage, yet the weight of her ‘tragic family’ back home is shown through her face, and even as Dr. Paul comes back into her life as the love interest she always wanted, she is held back by her past. Linda’s face is utilized as it vividly evolves with her circumstances, and Reid pays close attention to this.

In the end this film is all about love and loss, and I can’t help but think of the phrase ‘if you love something, set it free,’ as Decker knowingly hides his medicine in the plant while Linda is in the hall. With this act Decker selflessly sets his true love free. With this Reid, shows the good in all humanity. Not simply showing one side as the side of righteousness, both Decker and Linda sacrifice for the ones they love.

In addition to the narrative techniques and moral charge of the story (and the already prior mentioned technical aspects) through this film Reid also plays around a lot with composition and framing techniques as well as an compelling attention to detail in setting. One specific and reoccurring example of this is the use of the tree. This tree is where we find Linda reading, and it is also where love blossoms, Decker’s love for her, and her love for Dr. Paul, and the tree frames all of this in a sort of allegorical way, possibly representing her roots, however she escapes into the limbs, hence ‘into the clouds.’ Another interesting technical aspect of the film is the fact that Reid utilized static shots, however the gaze of the characters in said shots often represents much more of their intentions and or their mental as well as physical focus. Of course this is best exemplified as Decker’s death approaches, and he hides the pills as she unknowingly looks away into a dream.

Finally now we shall foray from Reid’s interesting edge-of-your-seat melodrama, to the documentary on Frances Marion, once again a woman who I believe Slide in a way underrepresented. However this is possibly due to the immense amount of knowledge gained about such a fascinating woman through the documentary Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Power of Women in Hollywood (Bridget Terry 2001). Through this well-done collage documentary of stock footage and reenactment style clips, Uma Thurman’s voice conveys the life of one of Hollywood’s most beloved behind the scenes women (clips from Marion’s diaries are read by Kathy Bates).

In the documentary the viewer glides through the amazing life of Frances Marion, who wrote over 200 films, many of which were and still are well thought of. Initially she did poster painting, then acting, where she met long time friend and collaborator Mary Pickford, who she is often attributed with the development of Pickford as ‘America’s Sweetheart.’ While Marion’s early forays into writing were more focused on a ‘mix of comedy and commentary,’ she is also extremely well known for her abilities to transform literature to script as well as her innovative ways of telling story.

She directed a few films but in the end, decided that she much preferred the act of writing film. This was beneficial for audiences everywhere and Hollywood in general because she was incredibly talented and made the switch to sound easily. It seemed to her a bit easier to write for sound, less cues more dialogue. In the end, she provided a bit of an exception to the rule because her success not only continued for a while, but she isn’t nearly as forgotten in contemporary society as most of the women we have talked about thus far. She was even awarded one of the third annual Oscars, and two more subsequently, the second of which made her the first person ever to have won two. This illuminating documentary truly served to introduce the viewer to the life and work of an amazing human being whose life, work and philosophies are exceptionally interesting.