Conference Report: Women in The American New Wave: A Retrospective (July 2017)

mrs robinson

Retrospectives: Another opportunity to rethink women’s contribution?

In this week’s contribution, Fjoralba Miraka reflects on a conference at Bangor University on The American New Wave.  Out of a wide-ranging event, she focusses on key aspects in relation to women and film history, not least in some challenges to the dominance of the prevailing idea of the New Hollywood male auteur. Her report provides further evidence for WFTHN readers of how looking back continues to provide vital material for reassessment and moving forwards.

The American New Wave: A Retrospective: School of Creative Studies and Media, College of Arts and Humanities: Bangor University, 4-6 July 2017

The American New Wave or New Hollywood cinema, a period of American cinema understood as spanning the late 1960s through the 1970s, remains a rich era of film research for current generations of cinephiles and film scholars. This July it was again the object of inquiry at a conference organised by Bangor University which invited and welcomed an international group of scholars to celebrate the period’s legacies and re-examine its significance. Panels discussed a variety of aspects of New Hollywood, from questions of authorship, histories and inheritances to analyses revisiting key films, stars, genres and production companies. All three days featured a special keynote address and ended with the screenings of key films from that era: Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), and Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979).

Women’s contributions featured in various ways during the conference. Of particular interest was the panel on women practitioners, which featured a presentation by Aaron Hunter[1] on ‘Polly Platt’s New Hollywood Aesthetic’ and a second presentation by Aimee Mollaghan on ‘Barbara Loden’s Influence on the Contemporary American Female Road Movie’. Both presentations argued convincingly for the inherent sexism of traditional auteurist criticism and illustrated the ways in which it has invariably disregarded and overlooked the work of women both in front of and behind the camera. Hunter’s discussion about production designer Polly Platt’s aesthetics of realism and hyper-realism present in Peter Bogdanovich’s films offered the designer the creative credit she has usually been denied. Mollaghan’s discussion of Barbara Loden’s road movie Wanda (1970) challenged our perceptions of gender and genre by examining how the metaphoric use of landscape in the film reconstituted gender representations in relation to images of open space. My own presentation focused on the under-explored function of melodrama in the New Hollywood films, taking Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) as an example of the way in which the woman in this era is typically displaced from the central position she occupied in the melodramas of Classical Hollywood.

The function of melodrama featured elsewhere in relation to male film directors. Linda Williams focused on the wonder boy of New Hollywood, Steven Spielberg, considering the framing influence of melodrama in his films, through recurrence of childhood experience, prominent in Spielberg’s films. She elaborated on the function of nostalgia and sentimentality, which hold a significant place in Spielberg’s melodramas, and the wonderful workings of his music which produce ‘the bodily fluids of melodrama’, tears.

The second pair of panels offered explorations of alternative perspectives which challenged the dominance of the film auteur, bringing to our attention the creative contributions of scriptwriters, sound designers and film editors. Oliver Gruner, Frederick Wasser, and Warren Buckland discussed the contribution of scriptwriter Waldo Salt, sound designer Walter Murch and film editors Sam O’Steen, Dede Allen, and Ralph Rosenblum respectively, making the case for the valuable contributions of film practitioners other than the director. Their presentations were an attempt to pay tribute both to the collaborative nature of the filmmaking experience itself and the hidden figures of the industry and its history. Dede Allen’s editing work on Bonnie and Clyde was presented as typical of the period’s innovation and experimentation with stylistic choices, and reflected on how these choices functioned as cultural commentary. Thanks to her pioneering contribution to the aesthetics of key films of the era, Buckland argued convincingly that Allen is equally deserving of the title ‘auteur’. Returning to the director role, Jimmy Hay related River of Grass director Kelly Reichardt’s ‘cinema of weariness’ to New Hollywood; a cinema of passive, muted characters with restricted movements, and stylistically very close to the European film sensibility of long takes and exterior places.

At a point at which discussion of the gender imbalances of much conference activity has become an increasingly pressing conversation in academia, the conspicuously limited number of women presenters at the event, as well as the limited number of presentations focusing on women actively involved in film during the Hollywood Renaissance era, was striking. Some interesting, illustrative numbers were: only 1 out of the 4 keynote speakers was a woman; only 6 out of the 37 presenters were women (myself included); only 4 out of all 37 presentations involved discussions about women in New Hollywood (those were sound editor Dede Allen, designer Polly Platt, directors Barbara Loden, and Kelly Reichardt); all three screenings were films directed by men.  This offers the chance to think about possible reasons behind this imbalance in numbers. Is it indicative of a limited presence of women active during that period in film production? Could it indicate a perception of New Hollywood as male topic or terrain in the approaches adopted in film history and criticism? Can we, positively, perceive these questions as a spur to engage in a determined manner, to reassess film history and work towards a more inclusive canon? In that respect, the Women and New Hollywood conference organised by Maynooth University for May 2018 comes at the right moment to offer fresh, challenging, and inspirational perspectives on the innovative and influential contributions of women whose labour has been overlooked, dismissed, or simply erased from critical perspectives.

In a subsequent discussion, Yannis Tzioumakis (University of Liverpool) reflected upon the ongoing passion scholars show towards the films of that period and expressed aims of interest to Women’s Film and Television History Network. In recent scholarship in this area, he commented that ‘there has been a strong emphasis on looking beyond a director-centred or auteurist cinema that has tended to dominate existing studies and a focus instead on such issues as the role of other collaborators, the distinction between myth and fact, an examination of little-seen films and little-discussed companies and indeed an emphasis on the ways in which we can potentially reassess the period with the help of these new perspectives and focal points. For me, all these developments are very positive and are bound to produce new and exciting work on the topic. And I think female scholarship/scholarship on women and the Hollywood Renaissance can play a vital part in this project.’ As Robert Kolker also reflected: ‘it was especially gratifying to meet so many young scholars. Their passion for the field proves not only the lasting value of American films of the 1960s and 70s, but also the health of cinema studies.’

The conference was hosted and organised by academics and staff from the School of Creative Studies and Media which is part of the College of Arts and Humanities at Bangor University. We extend, thus, our warm thanks to Bangor University and to its lead organizers Gregory Frame and Nathan Abrams, for offering the necessary space for such concerns to be raised and addressed.

For the conference programme, see here

Fjoralba Miraka is a Ph.D student at Roehampton University and teaching associate, with a research focus on the postclassical melodramatic imagination in the Hollywood Renaissance period. She is currently working on a chapter for publication concerning the male melodramas of Scorsese’s early films. She is also writing an entry on the history of Feminist Film Theory for the first Encyclopaedia of Gender, Media and Communication, scheduled for publication in 2019, as part of the ICA series of the Sub-disciplinary Encyclopaedias of Communication.

[1] Aaron Hunter is on a two-year postdoctoral fellowship which focuses on Women and New Hollywood, based at Maynooth University, Department of Media Studies and sponsored by the Irish Research Council. Details about their forthcoming 2018 conference on ‘Women in New Hollywood’ are available on the website