NEW YORK: An upcoming film series at Lincoln Center asks a provocative question: Is there such a thing as a "female gaze" in movies?
The perspective by which women are often seen, sexualized and objectified by men — consciously or not — in Hollywood films is known as the "male gaze," a term Laura Mulvey coined in a famous 1975 essay. Movies, where men are so often behind the camera, inevitably render women a certain way.
Beginning Friday, "The Female Gaze" will flip the question around with a two-week survey featuring 36 films shot by 23 female cinematographers. The first-of-its-kind series promises to be among the most conversation-starting film retrospectives in recent memory, throwing a big film theory question into a movie industry churning with gender issues.
"I wanted to see if there's a difference," said Florence Almozini, a senior programmer for the Film Society at Lincoln Center who assembled the series along with Tyler Wilson and Madeline Whittle. "When you watch a movie, would you know who's shooting it? Would you recognize a male gaze versus a female gaze?"
"The Female Gaze" was partly prompted by the upcoming 100th anniversary of the American Society of Cinematographers. Founded in 1919, the society didn't invite a woman to join until 1980, when it admitted Brianne Murphy.
But there are signs of change. Earlier this year, "Mudbound" director of photography Rachel Morrison became the first woman ever Oscar-nominated for cinematography. "It's a job that basically is combining empathy with channelling emotion into visual imagery. It's everything women do well," Morrison, who has since shot "Black Panther," said at the time. "I could never quite understand why there aren't more of us."
Yet female cinematographers remain a tiny minority in Hollywood. An estimated four percent of cinematography society members are women. San Diego State University researchers found that in the top 100 grossing films in 2017, two were shot by women. That percentage has remained roughly the same for the last 25 years.
The Lincoln Center series, though, shows the expansive, essential work of a wide variety of female cinematographers. There are acknowledged masters (Agnes Godard, French filmmaker Claire Denis' longtime director of photography), feminist landmarks (Chantal Akerman's "Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles," shot by Babette Mangolte) and new arrivals (the upcoming "The Miseducation of Cameron Post," shot by Ashley Connor). There are movies directed by men and women, American films and international ones, blockbusters ("Creed," shot by Maryse Alberti) and indies ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," shot by Ellen Kuras).
The perspectives and imagery vary vastly. If there is a "female gaze" at all, it is myriad and infinite.
"One of the joys of this series is to realize how many women have been working, how many women have shot footage that I've loved," says Kirsten Johnson, a veteran documentary cinematographer whose acclaimed 2016 mosaic "Cameraperson" is part of the series. "To make that explicit at this point in time feels really useful."
Like many, if not all the cinematographers in the series, Johnson has long resisted being defined by her gender. She was too focused on her subjects and on serving the visions of directors. Only when making "Cameraperson," which fused footages from her non-fiction travels with home video, did Johnson start to see how present she was in the footage she's shot.
"What I've come to understand is that the subjectivity of seeing is incredibly acute," says Johnson. "It is connected to all the things that each of us are. Each of us has so many identities but some of our identities are visible to others."
The film's title was partly a wry joke. Johnson has been called a "cameraman" just about every day on her life on set. For her, the word "gaze" isn't quite right, either. It suggests seeing with pleasure, "which I love," she says, "but the primary word I feel when I'm filming is 'searching.'"
Almozini considers the series an "open question," that will be especially illuminating when several of the cinematographers gather for a staged conversation. "They all have a different opinion," says Almozini. She points to a film like "In the City of Silvia" as an especially confounding example. The 2007 film by José Luis Guerín — "a very male gaze movie," says Almozini — is about a man searching Strasbourg, France, for a woman he had only the briefest of encounters with years before.
It was shot by Natasha Braier, a 43-year-old Buenos Aires native who attended film school in the U.K. and who considers herself a "global gypsy." Braier, whose credits include Nicolas Winding Refn's "Neon Demon" and Sebastian Lelio's upcoming "Gloria," has mixed feelings about being assembled by gender.
"I'm not really a believer of the gender celebration thing and the women cinematographer thing," says Braier. "I've been asked all these questions about being a female DP for 20 years now and it never really made a lot of sense to me because I believe that every artist is individual with their own individual gaze.
"But I do understand the global situation right now," she adds. "It's a great time to celebrate, in my point of view, not the female gaze but all these different gazes by a lot of cinematographers who happen to be women."
There's also a rare sense of community conferred by the Lincoln Center series. To band together for support, several collectives of female cinematographers have formed in recent years, including Cinematographers XX and the International Collective of Female Cinematographers.
For its selected cinematographers, the delight of "The Female Gaze" is to be counted among such company.
"There are moments when you feel ambivalence about being grouped in such a way," says Johnson. "I would say I feel unequivocally unambivalent about being part of this group. I feel incredible pride and I hope that it inspires anybody with a gaze and lots of young women with gazes to get out there and start searching."