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Bret Easton Ellis: Film requires the male gaze, female directors need not apply

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May 19th, 2010 at 10:15 am

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Movieline printed an interview with author Bret Easton Ellis, whose most famous work is probably American Psycho, which director Mary Harron translated into a bizarre little film starring Christian Bale in 2000.

Bret Easton Ellis in a publicity shot (from here).

Ellis’s books are infinitely dark, angry, and sometimes downright shocking. They are about the gritty, hideous underbelly of human emotion. Movie adaptations of his work, which include Less Than Zero (1987), The Rules of Attraction (2002), and The Informers (2008), along with American Psycho, are generally hit-or-miss. To be fair, the material’s often difficult to adapt, but Harron managed it brilliantly with American Psycho.

Christian Bale debates his weaponry in Mary Harron’s American Psycho.

For some reason, Ellis puts his in two cents to Movieline regarding female directors. He says,

“…There’s something about the medium of film itself that I think requires the male gaze.”

What would that be?

We’re watching, and we’re aroused by looking, whereas I don’t think women respond that way to films, just because of how they’re built. [emphasis mine]

You don’t think they have an overt level of arousal?

[They have one] that’s not so stimulated by the visual. I think, to a degree, all the women I named aren’t particularly visual directors. You could argue that Lost in Translation is beautiful, but is that [cinematographer Lance Acord]? I don’t know. Regardless of the business aspect of things, is there a reason that there isn’t a female Hitchcock or a female Scorsese or a female Spielberg? I don’t know. I think it’s a medium that really is built for the male gaze and for a male sensibility. I mean, the best art is made under not an indifference to, but a neutrality [toward] the kind of emotionalism that I think can be a trap for women directors.

Mr. Ellis, this is why Hollywood is still a boys’ club. It’s why women like me, who focus their lives on viewing and critiquing and above all, loving film, encounter obstacles every step of the way. Throughout college, I idolized my female professors because, well, there aren’t very many women who take a serious interest in film. This is a chicken-or-the-egg situation, to be sure. Women’s roles behind the camera are historically small and unimportant, and perhaps this is because the men who still head the studios figure women can’t do it, we aren’t genetically equipped with the ability to be visually stimulated. Ellis mentions that he enjoys the films of Sofia Coppola, Floria Sigismondi (he loved The Runaways), and Fish Tank‘s Andrea Arnold, but goes on to say female directors don’t have much to do with the visual composition of their films. What about women cinematographers?

After Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar for The Hurt Locker, which is a movie about men, masculinity, and one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, why are people still debating women’s merits as filmmakers? Sigismondi’s The Runaways would not have been the same movie had a male director made it. Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers, whose movies focus on “women’s” subject matter, may have been the most prominent female directors in the last few years, but a massive sea change is occurring in Hollywood and outside of it. Women are no longer relegated to the sidelines on set, nor are they expected to just look pretty in front of the camera.

Kathryn Bigelow on the set of The Hurt Locker.

I’d love to know how Mary Harron feels about Ellis’s comments. Considering the popularity of the movie and the cult following it drew to the book, Ellis should be grateful for her faithful and quite brilliant adaptation.

Read the interview here: Movieline.
Jezebel.
A short rundown of feminist theory on the great and mighty Wikipedia.

  • http://www.mushycat.com Ken Morton

    Great article! It is disappointing that Ellis thinks so little of the women in the field that he resorts to such statements. Attitudes like his are what perpetuate the sort of environment that women (and men) have to fight against, in the film world and elsewhere (everywhere!).

  • MeJane

    Wow, when I read this shitck about the female directors I thought it was Patrick Bateman talking. Oh wait. it WAS. Creepy.

  • Mandy

    I will agree that what he says here is phrased badly and in fact douchey (is that a word? haha.) However, my reaction is this: Prove him wrong. He says there is no “female Spielberg or Hitchcock,” then show me the female version. You are out there and angry, show me what you can do. Don’t just be mad that you are being categorized or oppressed. Do something about this. And this stands for female movie reviewers and critics as well.

  • Lara

    ” Prove him wrong. He says there is no “female Spielberg or Hitchcock,” then show me the female version.” Look, forty years ago society deemed that the right place for a woman was to be at home being a perfect housewife. And while that might seem like a long time ago, societal changes take even longer. With restrictions like these how can you expect a female Spielberg or Hitchcock? As evidenced in this interview, there are still people who think film is not a woman’s medium, so instead of financing a movie helmed by a woman, the money is more likely directed towards men. And without money you can’t build a filmography.
    Not everything Spielberg touches is gold, yet people are more willing to finance him than say for example Jane Campion.
    And even though a woman directed a very successful American Psycho, Ellis still says those stupid things. Even though a woman directed Lost in Translation, he thinks the merit belongs to the male cinematographer.
    That’s just the same like me saying: Well, you could argue that Rebecca is a great movie, but wasn’t this (female) writer Daphne du Maurier’s work and Joan Fontaine’s acting that made it successful.
    God, this is so stupid.

  • MeJane

    Hey Mandy- Respectfully I have two words for you – Kathryn Bigelow. The other thing is .. his comments are so interesting considering women made the movie. I know for me, I would have never read or known about the book if it weren’t for the movie- which was so well done, it made me want more.

  • Mandy

    I completely agree with you MeJane. There are many female directors I dig on. I mostly was just trying to say that the best revenge is success. In that sense, keep trying to prove him wrong and don’t let him get under your skin. That’s all. Apparently had too many Crown and Cokes to make my point clear.

  • Randy Cunnigham

    This dude never saw Taymor’s ‘Titus’

  • MeJane

    Hey Mandy: Your alright.

  • hommlette

    Perhaps I’ve got it all wrong (or maybe just partially) but I thought that Ellis was being ironic by making these comments, subverting the “male gaze” of film theorists like Laura Mulvey. I took his comments to be more a provocation than an outright condemnation. Considering he cited Speilberg as a great director, I’m inclined to take his remarks with more than a grain of salt. Successful or not, I think Harron’s American Psycho was pretty mediocre.
    As for great female directors, what about Catherine Breillat?

  • http://calitreview.com/ Julia Rhodes

    Hey hommlette,

    Based upon other interviews and the sheer earnestness of this one, I don’t think he was being facetious or ironic. Then there’s the fact that, while some of his books are pretty amazing, they are massively violent toward women. In my opinion, there’s some kind of deep-seated issue there. I don’t want to indicate that American Psycho is the best movie ever…I just think Ellis ought to watch his mouth when speaking of the movie that helped fuel his career.

    While he may have a point–that directors like Nora Ephron, Penny Marshall, and Nancy Meyers don’t focus on the visual. They focus on closeness, on intimate storytelling. But unfortunately they’re some of the most visible female directors (aside from Bigelow). Breillat is fantastic. Nanette Burstein (American Teen) is a notable new-ish female director, and Mira Nair’s films are some of the most sensual, visual experiences in film (despite their content being iffy sometimes).

    And to be fair to Ellis: Spielberg, in the technical sense, is a great director. The man makes movies that people love, with good reason. They are not perfect movies, but they’re well made, well received, and almost always fun. He and James Cameron are both good directors. Not my thing, mostly (and I still curse Cameron for the plague of 3D), but hey.

    Anyway, glad to see someone took it another way.

  • Rua

    Sofia Coppolla-not a visual director?! Has Ellis seen ‘Marie Antoinette’???? It’s a visual feast.

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