The St. James Women Filmmakers Encyclopedia: Women on the Other Side of the Camera, edited by Amy L. Unterberger. (Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1999). Trade paper, $29.95, 568pp. ISBN 1-57859-092-2.
This is not the first such anthology, but it’s one of only a handful. Like cinema itself, publishing has generally taken little note of the contribution of women to film, with a few exceptions like the work of, say, Leni Riefenstahl, Dorothy Arzner, Ida Lupino, and Jodie Foster. In those cases, any attention paid can be traced as much to other kinds of notoriety — Riefenstahl’s Hitler connection, Arzner’s lesbianism, and Lupino’s and Foster’s greater fame as actresses — as to these women’s perceived inherent achievement as creators.
This compendium is useful as far as it goes. The range is reasonably wide, with short entries (it looks like anywhere from 1000 to 3000 words) on directors, producers, animators, art directors, editors, writers, and costume designers. The format is short biography, filmography, and an article combining history and analysis. The writing is generally cogent, and there are useful filmographies at the end of each entry. It’s good to have a single source of what looks like reliable information on pioneers like Frances Marion, underappreciated auteurs like Chantal Ackerman and Doris Dorrie, and important underground faves such as Barbara Hammer, Gunvor Nelson, and Su Friedrich.
There’s a caveat here, however, and an unexpected one given Visible Ink’s usual track record of inclusiveness. The book is slanted toward the mainstream — classical and recent Hollywood — and toward art films that sometimes have rarely been seen outside the film festival circuit and may not be available on video. (This is true of the work of the wonderful Russian director Larisa Shepitko.) In a rather old-fashioned touch, the editor chose to omit women who carved careers in exploitation, a realm in which they could sometimes flourish when they weren’t permitted into the more hallowed realms of the mainstream, the artful indie, or the museum-approved underground film. Surely it’s troubling that there’s no mention of Doris Wishman, who toiled productively for several decades in the gulag of mostly male-dominated exploitation. Her work has excited interest in many quarters (including the notorious structuralists), but you’d never know it from this book. Ditto the films of Stephanie Rothman, who was a cause celebre in the ‘70s for feminist-subversive low-budget fare like The Velvet Vampire, Group Marriage, and Terminal Island. Barbara Peeters, an alumna of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, also deserves mention for radical genre reworkings such as Bury Me an Angel and Humanoids from the Deep. Such omissions are especially annoying given that there’s already a wealth of information on some of the subjects here — certainly Barbra Streisand, Jodie Foster, and even Frances Marion, the subject of a recent full-length biography, figure here. That Unterberger did not include Wishman, Rothman, Peeters, et al. gives the book a slightly provincial tone, calls into question the word “encyclopedia” in the title, and limits its usefulness as a resource.