Karla Peterson: New Turner Classic Movies series on female filmmakers is too much and not enough

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One thing I have learned in my many decades of watching movies is that when Tilda Swinton talks, I listen. So if you are wondering what awaits you in “Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema,” a new documentary series debuting Tuesday on the Turner Classic Movies channel, just listen to the first few minutes of Swinton’s narration of the debut episode. In short order, you will find out everything you need to know about this 14-episode epic.

Including the likelihood that you will make it past the first hour.

Written and directed by Irish film critic and filmmaker Mark Cousins, “Women Make Film” is not about women filmmakers. Or at least not in any of the ways you would expect. Before Swinton gets to what “Women Make Film” is about, she tells us what we should not expect from the series. It is not about the directors’ lives, she says. There will be no analysis of how women directors are different from men. And it’s not, Swinton says with a little wink in her voice, “one of those lists of the best films ever made.”

So what is it, then?

“This is a film school of sorts, in which all the teachers are women. An Academy of Venus,” Swinton says, finally.

Consider yourself warned. Or intrigued. I recommend both.

Like Cousins’ 2011 series “The Story of Film: An Odyssey” (which TCM aired in 2013), “Women Make Film” is a massive survey class illustrated by a staggering number of film clips from a global collection of filmmakers. But while “The Story of Film” took the expected timeline approach to the subject — the birth of cinema, the arrival of sound, European New Wave, America’s seminal ‘70s, etc. — “Women Make Film” is dedicated to the art and craft of making movies. Very, very dedicated.

Each of the 14 episodes is divided into multiple chapters that focus on specific cinematic building blocks. The debut episode’s first chapter looks at the different ways directors open their films, while the second chapter deals with tone. The Sept. 8 episode gives us chapters on how to make a film believable, how to introduce a character to viewers, and how to introduce characters to each other. Future chapters look at how to make conversations cinematic, how directors portray bodies and sex, and how films tackle the Big Subjects of life, love and death.

If you’re looking at this topic lineup and thinking it sounds an awful lot like a syllabus, you would be right. And if you watch the first episode and feel like you are sitting through the world’s most lavishly illustrated lecture, you would be right about that, too. As Professor Swinton said, “Women Make Film” is a film school of sorts, and while there will be no pop quizzes or term papers at the end of our TV semester, your patience will certainly be tested.

There are no interviews in “Women Make Films,” which means there are no experts on board to explain why Ukrainian director Kira Muratova is, to quote Swinton, “one of cinema’s most distinctive filmmakers.” Or why Alison de Vere’s “The Black Dog” is considered “one of the most surreal ever made.” There is no one to tell you more about German filmmaker Charlotte “Lotte” Reiniger, who made more than 70 dazzling animated films using paper silhouettes she cut herself. Or about Kinuyo Tanaka, an actress known as Japan’s Bette Davis who went on to become a celebrated and influential director.

What you get in this series is a celebrity narrator — Swinton, Jane Fonda, Thandie Newton, Adjoa Andoh, to name a few — laying out the episodes’ themes, introducing the clips that illustrate them, recapping the themes, and sometimes giving you a play-by-play of what you are seeing on the screen. While I appreciate Cousins’ desire to look at female filmmakers through the breadth and depth of their work, the lack of any outside perspective — historical, critical or biographical — makes it hard to get a handle on what you’re looking at and why it matters.

We are frequently told that certain filmmakers are “distinctive” or that a film is “one of the most autumnal movies ever made” or has “one of film’s most symbolic opening scenes,” but we don’t know who is making these pronouncements or what they mean. Between the purple prose and the lack of context, Cousins’ narration often sounds like a take-home exam written at the very last minute by a very smart student hoping the abundance of poetry will make up for the lack of everything else.

But the clips! Oh my gosh, the clips. From popcorn flicks (Penelope Spheeris’ “Wayne’s World,” Kathryn Bigelow’s “Point Break”) to art-house favorites (Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann,” Agnes Varda’s “Vagabond”) and stunners from the global vaults (Wendy Toye’s “All for Mary,” Erika Runge’s “Why Is Frau B. Happy?”), Cousins stuffs each episode to bursting with snippets of films you will want to see more of by directors you’ll want to know better.

The series introduces us to more films and filmmakers than we can begin to absorb (40-plus films are featured in episode two alone), but to his credit, Cousins and his wide-ranging passion will make you want to dig deeper. And to its credit, Turner Classic Movies is here to help.

Throughout the run of “Women Make Film,” TCM will be showing movies by many of the filmmakers featured in the series. Every Tuesday night from Sept. 1 through Dec. 1 will be devoted to films highlighted in that evening’s episode. The lineup includes Dorothy Arzner’s daring “Merrily We Go to Hell” from 1932, Cheryl Dunye’s pioneering 1995 LGBT comedy “The Watermelon Woman,” Mira Nair’s empathetic “Salaam Bombay!” from 1988, and from 1975, Lina Wertmüller’s Oscar-nominated “Seven Beauties.”

There are more treats on the series website (womenmakefilm.tcm.com), including film clips, trailers, filmmaker biographies, and the full film schedule. Yes, “Women Make Film” is going to stress your brain and your eyeballs, but you are going to love the homework.


“Women Make Film” airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. EDT on Turner Classic Movies, with second showings later the same evening. Check tcm.com for the schedule.


(Karla Peterson is a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune.)


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