Mother cutters

Think you haven’t seen all that many movies made by women? Think again. The “invisible” art of film editing — of selecting from masses of raw footage (generally shot out of sequence) of landscapes, character close-ups, dialogue, establishing shots, unfurling ropes, crossed swords, galloping horses, cars screeching to a halt, shark fins emerging from dark seas, bullets lacerating bodies, maniacal laughter, buildings collapsing, death scenes, and first kisses (usually many takes of each), and shaping them into a coherent narrative with a rhythm and story arc, literally controlling which images beam into your eager eyes — this work is frequently carried out by the ladies.

The history of female film directors is both scanty and much remarked upon. When Sofia Coppola earned her Academy nomination for Best Director for Lost in Translation in 2004, it had been 10 years since Jane Campion was nominated for The Piano, and almost 30 since Lina Wertmüller was nominated, in 1977, for Pasqualino Settebellezze (Seven Beauties). Coppola, Campion, and Wertmüller are the only three women to have been nominated for a Best Director Oscar. Ever. The reasons for this are debated (maybe not hotly, but debated) in film and women’s studies departments, on back lots, blogs, and on the festival circuit. Reasons bandied about for women not having completely cracked the celluloid ceiling include the increasing desire of mega-corporate-owned studios to sell blockbuster action franchises to the elusive and desirable 18-34 year-old male demographic, the resistant and entrenched old-boy’s network of media ownership, and even the pernicious and worrying assumption that women are less assertive, or even “less visual.”

Yup, the “male gaze” — phallic, Western, and largely heterocentric — is often brought to bear on discussions of gender and cinema, and not always with the accusatory first-wave feminist critique it once received. Let’s face it; film digs the male gaze, maybe even requires it. Sitting in a darkened theater or in front of the home screen, we undress, attack, consume, and conquer with our eyes. The act of filmic engagement isn’t about caretaking, nurturing, or even a communicative consensus-building — all supposed aspects of the female purview. Even as we watch a scene meant to rouse our empathy, it’s drama and conflict we’re after, perhaps a neurological — even genetic — legacy from our grunty, pre-literate hunter-gatherer days. Do the rigorous chase scenes of hunting (the presumably and traditionally male activity) just make for a more exciting storyline than, say, gathering nuts?

How, then, do we explain Verna Fields? She’s not a household name, but she almost should be; she edited Jaws. And she didn’t just edit Jaws, which is maybe the hunt-heaviest, most grandly primitive, male-gaze-y piece of mainstream cinema ever to haunt the collective subconscious, but she did it mostly sans shark. In an interview in 1980, Fields explained, “I was the liaison with the studio for Steven `Spielberg`. When they thought of ditching the picture because the shark wasn’t working, I told them, ‘Keep doing it, even if you need to use miniatures.’”

You could make an argument — hell, I will — that in a very real way, Fields herself was the unseen shark of the picture, the skillful hunter alone in the deep, feeding off whatever Spielberg was throwing in there when “Bruce,” the recalcitrant mechanical shark, wasn’t working properly (which was most of the time). In fact, Jaws is a surprisingly (infamously, actually, to cine-nerds) shark-free affair. The excitement has mainly to do with creating a scene-by-scene, shot-by-shot feeling of foreboding in the film’s attack-heavy first half, and a Mellvillean adventure yarn in the second. Now, I’m not saying Spielberg had nothing to do with this — to argue that Fields did everything Spielberg did, but backwards and in high heels, would be protesting far too much — but Fields’ cinematic achievement earned her the affectionate title of “mother cutter” from the film’s cast and crew, a title of vice-president at Universal, and the 1976 Academy Award for Achievement in Editing.

And, amazingly, Fields was no Oscar pioneer. Since 1934, when the first Academy Award was handed out, there have been many more years in which a female editor was either nominated or won the Oscar than not.

And as Variety’s Eileen Kowalski noted in a profile of editor Tina Hirsch in 2001 “many of the editorial greats have been women: Dede Allen, Verna Fields, Thelma Schoonmaker, Anne V. Coates and Dorothy Spencer.”

Just to give you a little context, Dede Allen edited Dog Day Afternoon, Bonnie and Clyde, Serpico, The Hustler, and Reds; Anne V. Coates edited Lawrence of Arabia, The Elephant Man, Becket, and Erin Brockovich; and Dorothy Spencer cut Stagecoach, Foreign Correspondent, Lifeboat, My Darling Clementine, The Young Lions, and, at the demographically negligible action-movie age of 65, Earthquake. Allen, Coates, and Spencer worked in close collaboration with such diverse directors as Hitchcock, John Ford, David Lynch, Sidney Lumet, and David Lean, and share some five Oscars and more than 20 nominations between them.

Interestingly, Coates and Spencer started their careers at the dawn of motion pictures when — and it seems odd now — many editing jobs went to women. When asked why she thought this was the case, the venerable Coates answered,

“I have a different theory … most of the editors were women, and they started by cutting negative. And I think that women were considered more patient and careful and all those sorts of things … and they were more precise. But I was taught, or I must have heard it somewhere, that as it became a more important job, men started to get in on it. While it was just a background job, they let the women do it. But when people realized how interesting and creative editing could be, then the men elbowed the women out of the way and kind of took over.”

It’s as though editing film was at first understood to be piecework, like embroidery, and was later better-understood to be creative work, like, say, writing. It may come as further surprise that Quentin Tarantino’s longtime editor is also a woman, Sally Menke; he’s even gone so far as to describe the final-cut version of his films as being the “final draft,” produced in collaboration with her.

And as for the other name Kowalski mentioned, Thelma Schoonmaker … if you haven’t heard of her, then you don’t know much about Martin Scorsese. He has credited her as his most important collaborator, and she’s edited every one of his films since 1980’s Raging Bull, for which she won her first Oscar (she’d been nominated before, though, for Woodstock in 1971). Like Fields with Jaws, her eye for the nuances of violence and machismo are so expertly calibrated, so masterful, for lack of a better word, that it throws the whole notion of male gaze and women being inherently “less visual” into question. Which, to my eye, is a very good thing.

Women, admittedly, have a long way to go before becoming a directorial force in American or any other cinema. But merely knowing that there have been feminine eyeballs trained on movies in what is thought of as a very male way should enter the conversation, maybe as a dorsal fin, at first, ravenous and powerful as you-know-who. •


Since 1986, the SA Current has served as the free, independent voice of San Antonio, and we want to keep it that way.

Becoming an SA Current Supporter for as little as $5 a month allows us to continue offering readers access to our coverage of local news, food, nightlife, events, and culture with no paywalls.

Join today to keep San Antonio Current.

Scroll to read more Movie Reviews & News articles

Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.