Women’s Happytime Commune
New departures in women’s films

by E. Ann Kaplan

from Jump Cut, no. 9, 1975, pp. 9-11
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

A study of Sheila Paige’s WOMEN'S HAPPYTIME COMMUNE provides an opportunity to survey the kinds of films women have been making since the resurgence of the women’s movement in the late 60s. People are now ready for analysis of the practical, theoretical and methodological problems of making feminist films and of developing a concept of feminist cinema. As a contribution to discussion about women’s films and in order to place Paige’s film in its proper context, I will explore the various sorts of movies women have made and analyze the assumptions underlying their work.

The present women’s movement is unique historically in the emphasis that has been placed on women’s art and women’s culture generally. Interest in films by and about women began in 1969 as part of the larger focus on women’s creative activity, and on analysis of women in art and specifically in the media. The reasons for this emphasis need thorough analysis, but probably they have to do with the forms the women’s movement took in general, particularly consciousness raising with its emphasis on personal expression, and with the influence of the 60s counterculture.

The same reasons that lead to the interest in women’s art may in part account for the form that has predominated in women’s films. Nearly all are what we may loosely call cinema verité.(1) Subjects are selected and then, sometimes with prompting from interviewers off camera, talk about their experience, looking directly at the camera or speaking as they about tasks in their home or work. Camera work, sound and editing are aimed at rendering everything in as realistic a light as possible. Cameras are set up in people’s homes or in their local communities so that we get the feeling of the natural environment. Sometimes the sound track from an interview is played over shots of the women going about their tasks: occasionally, there is a commentary by the filmmakers as voice over. The basic form is women describing their personal experiences, their conflicts (both growing up and in their daily lives) and their understanding of how their situation all came about (JANIE'S JANIE, GROWING UP FEMALE, THE WOMEN'S FILM).

In this form, the filmmaker is in the background. Obviously, her perspective enters in the selection of subjects in the first place (i.e., middle class or working class women, politically involved women or non-political women, women with conflicts between work and home/ children, those with conflicts in marriage/ love, those with specific identity problems or organizing other women whose main struggle is around women), and in the editing of her material. The selection of what to show, out of all the possible aspects of any woman’s life, is determined by the film’s overall purpose as the director conceives it. Women who are political, in the sense of having a class analysis of society and believing that organizing working women is a strategy for social change, view their films as propaganda or organizing tools. They hope to raise the consciousness of middle class women seeing films about working women, and to show working women, hesitant about joining a struggle, images of the possibilities for change. Geri Ashur’s JANIE'S JANIE is a good example of this kind of film. Made in the Ironbound district of Newark, the film focuses on the personal history of Janie and the way that she came to see the need for organizing against a system that oppressed her at every turn—because she was poor, divorced and a woman. The analysis of women’s oppression in capitalism all comes from Janie herself, although one has a sense of her involvement in the larger working class project in the Ironbound district in the sometimes too pat explanations that she gives (the project is not referred to explicitly in the film). Newsreel’s THE WOMEN'S FILM, Madeline Anderson’s I AM SOMEBODY (about a hospital workers’ strike), and ANGELA: LIKE IT IS would all fall into the same category of explicitly political films in the cinema verité style.

Women who come to the feminist movement from a position other than a class analysis of society in the traditional sense, select middle class women like themselves (their friends as in Kate Millet’s THREE LIVES and the Twin City Media Collective’s CONTINUOUS WOMAN)(2) or make films of their own struggles (e.g., HOME MOVIE, JOYCE AT 34, MAMA, MOM AND ME).(3) The focus is on the particular conflicts these women faced, whatever they might be. The underlying assumption is that the conflicts are part of the way society views women, the roles society forces on women, the difficulty for women to be fulfilled in this kind of society with its particular ideas of the nuclear family and the subordinate position of women. The directors of these films differ from those of the first group in that they do not see their films as “organizing tools.” They certainly want to speak to women with similar conflicts and problems, to show them that they are not alone in their struggles, give them the courage to combat their sense of inferiority and find fulfillment. But their main end is description rather than evoking feelings of solidarity for social change.

Both groups of films serve important although differing functions, and reflect in their diversity of orientation as well as in their similarity of form the stage of the women’s movement over the past four years. All the films, in varying degrees, function as alternative or counter-cinema, both in terms of the economic base and of formal intervention. To begin with the economic base: the movies’ form is partly conditioned by the exclusion of women from commercial filmmaking and from learning the skills required in film production. Women have set up film collectives, where the few women who already have the skills teach others who would otherwise have no opportunity to learn them. Films are often collectively made, with all the compromises and time delays that this method of working involves. Women’s movies are thus often as valuable in terms of the process of making them as for the products that result. Their sometimes non-professional aspect follows from the conditions of their production.

In addition, women’s movies fall outside the commercial network of movie making. Since their themes are, in terms of mass audience, not popular, women cannot get funding for their work. For the same reasons, the films cannot be shown in the regular circuits. The cinema verité style is appropriate for these conditions. It is a relatively cheap form of filmmaking, requiring minimum equipment, no sets, no actors, and a small crew who are not paid, but volunteer their services out of commitment to the cause.

The form is also a result of a deliberate attempt at cinematic intervention. Firstly, showing real women on the screen is, itself, revolutionary, conditioned as we are to the idealized, fantasy images of the commercial cinema. (One could argue that this kind of intervention is more radical in a film like JANIE'S JANIE than in JOYCE AT 34, since Janie goes against all our media images of women in her style of living and goals in life. Joyce and her husband in both looks, goals, attitudes and values are thoroughly bourgeois, albeit that their attempt at a new domestic situation does involve struggle with the conventional idea of the nuclear family.(4)

Secondly, the kind of documentary women are making is the antithesis of those awful “educational” films people saw in high school, where a condescending narrator takes us through a pattern where the teenager does something “wrong” (i.e., against the social norms), and gradually “reformed” (i.e., made to conform to expected behavior). In the cinema verité films, the women speak for themselves, out of their own experience, without the mediation of commercial interests or patriarchal ideology.

British feminist filmmakers view intervention rather differently. Intervention to them means interrogating the whole notion of realism in the cinema. They do not believe that one can

“actually apprehend the message ... in some direct way. This idea is what we're deliberately trying to work against.”(5)

They consider cinema verité films to encourage passivity and to have little effect on audiences. Such films “don't do any work in terms of presenting ideas or actually engaging with the audience at any level.” They are interested in moving in the direction of entertainment films of a Brechtian kind, believing that “the idea that entertainment and politics don't go together is absurd.”(6) Claire Johnston claims that “the ‘truth’ of our oppression cannot be ‘captured’ on celluloid with the ‘innocence’ of the camera.”(7) She calls cinema verite or documentary films “the cinema of non-intervention,” and argues that they are dangerous because they “promote a passive subjectivity at the expense of analysis.” (8) In a strong statement, Claire Johnston asserts,

“Any revolutionary must challenge the depiction of reality; it is not enough to discuss oppression of women within the text of the film: the language of the cinema/ depiction of reality must also be interrogated, so that a break between ideology and text is effected.”(9)

In their later critical essays on Raoul Walsh and Dorothy Arzner, (10) Johnston and Pam Cook have tried to develop a critical methodology for showing how women have been treated within patriarchal Hollywood cinema. The London Women’s Film Group (to which Johnston belongs) have attempted in their film, THE AMAZING EQUAL PAY SHOW to raise the problem of realism within the film itself and to show the processes by which women are manipulated into doing what is against their interests in capitalism. They reworked a very Brechtian script written and performed before by a theater group, and see their decision to use it as significant. The script is

“based on notions of an epic theater and is an extraordinarily didactic parody of male chauvinist notions in unions and male chauvinism in the media.”(11)

The position of the British group reflects basic characteristics of a radical (and minority) element in British political and intellectual life, which in turn have affected the form and style of the British women’s movement. The influences include British leftist thinking about culture, and recently certain strands in French, German and Russian intellectual life—in France, Roland Barthes, Lévi-Strauss, the Cahiers du cinéma group, and, in terms of film practice, the recent Godard; in Germany, Brecht; and in Russia the formalists, particularly Todorov and Shlovsky. There is in addition a strong Freudian influence, especially as Freud has been re-interpreted by a French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, whose work has been propagated in England by Anthony Wilden. In a similar way, the form and style of U.S. women’s films reflect U.S. intellectual and political traditions that influenced the shape of the women’s movement here. British feminists tend to be organized into small, sectarian groups, each with a closely reasoned political position that is linked to leftist traditions in England that existed long before the women’s movement. As Juliet Mitchell has shown,(12) the U.S. women’s movement was strongly influenced by the student and black movements of the 60s and by the trends of the counterculture.

The consciousness raising structure that was so widespread here dramatically influenced the U.S. struggle to integrate personal lives with political beliefs. This stress on “the personal is political” lead to a redefinition of politics, rendering the traditional leftist categories and systems inadequate. When women talk about their oppression and personal conflicts, they are, from an U.S. point of view, discussing issues with implicit political implications and dimensions. U.S. women tried to generate their politics out of their personal experience. There is, thus, emphasis on personal reality in our films, in contrast to taking an already defined political form—Marxism, Maoism, various forms of socialism—and giving these systems a feminist dimension. This is one reason why the U.S. movement and most of the women’s films here have dealt with middle class rather than working class women. Since the movement was a middle class phenomenon to begin with, and since women were beginning with themselves, the middle class became the focus. In Europe, where women’s movements took place within defined leftist groups, working class women were generally focused on both in actions and in movies.(13)

Both approaches to filmmaking and to developing a women’s movement have their advantages and disadvantages. One danger of the U.S. cinema verité movies is that they only speak to the already committed. Working class women are often not moved by films that detail lives they know only too well, and they respond more to a film like Francine Winham’s PUT YOURSELF IN MY PLACE, which is a comic parody of sex roles. But the cinema verité films have been useful in the classroom. Students are often moved by learning about the plight of working class women whose lives they have never really tried to imagine. The cinema verité films about middle class women provoke lively discussion about issues that middle class students face in their futures, particularly in relation to marriage, family end careers. The abstract avant-garde or experimental films like PENTHESILEA often leave students confused, despite the works’ value as new departures in filmmaking and as confronting basic aspects of cinema that are important for women (e.g., voyeurism, identification). It remains to be seen what response films like THE AMAZING EQUAL PAY SHOW, Michelle Citron’s SELF-DEFENSE and the Berwick Collective’s CLEANING WOMEN, which combine avant-garde and innovative attitudes to cinema with a specifically political orientation, will evoke. What is certainly true is that we need ways of reaching women heavily saturated with mass media plots, styles, values and images, to the extent that they have accepted this pseudo-reality as “public and official ‘reality.’”(14)

With this background, we are ready to look at Sheila Paige’s WOMEN'S HAPPYTIME COMMUNE. Her film belongs in none of the categories so far outlined. It is not cinema verité of either the explicitly or implicitly political kind; nor is it an abstract or art film in the style of Maya Deren, Laura Mulvey, Susan Stockman or Mildred Iatrou. In being non-naturalist and non-abstract, Paige’s film marks a new departure in women’s films.(15) While it draws on elements common to the movies described so far, it makes something unique out of them.

Some information about the conditions of the film’s making and of Paige’s aims in doing the film may be useful before going on to a more thorough analysis.(16) The film was shot in Virginia in four days, with women who had not all worked together before. This fact of their not being a group who knew each other meant that a number of deep conflicts emerged while the film was being made. Since there was only time and money for the four days’ shooting, Paige had to work with what she had when she returned to New York. The discontinuous material shot with one camera was very difficult to edit and took some time. From this distance, the film looks flawed to Paige. In a class discussion of her film, she commented that she would have scripted such more of WOMEN'S HAPPYTIME COMMUNE had she to do it over again.

As it was, she started out merely with the idea of doing a women’s Western. She was attracted to the genre because of the use of wide open spaces and because the Western, as a genre, excludes women from the action (to all intents and purposes, anyway). Having stated that she wanted to make a Western, Paige let the actors (who were friends or women people involved knew) create the film. Drawing on her teaching experience, where she had had success getting children to think through their personal “stories,” Paige wanted to allow women to enact dreams and fantasies that interested them. The idea of the commune was the contribution of one actress, Roberta Nodes. Paige knew most of the stories, although one woman kept hers secret until the very end.

This sort of structure is a dramatic departure from the usual narrative film where the story is laid down from the start in its entirety. It is an improvisational fantasy. It takes the shape it has, presents what it does, as a result of the people Paige was working with. Its basic theme, as Paige sees it, is discussion around the proposition of women living in a commune, with the result being that most do not want to live this way. Possibly, Paige says, the film has the practical problem of proposing something no one wants to do. Basically, Paige was simply excited about what people had to say. She apparently played it by ear a lot of the time. Some scenes were worked on and scripted (e.g., Roberta’s dreams of the future), while others were quite spontaneous.

The main problem of the film and of this way of working, according to Paige, is that the film lacks a clear framework. While audiences (students, women’s groups, people at film conferences) now quite like the film (this was not true earlier when the issues the film raises were still very sensitive ones), people often do not know what to make of certain scenes. For instance, there is one scene, in a woman’s fantasy, where she is seen going crazy. People don't know how to evaluate this, how to judge it, because it is not placed in any perspective within the film itself. Paige evidently would have liked the film to have a more clear point of view.

Paige’s comments about her film go some way toward explaining the special kind of quality it has. Her interest in what women have to say and in their fantasies reflects a broad kind of tolerance and acceptance that is refreshing. An open, humorous attitude prevails. Whether consciously or not, the people in the film, and Paige, in her excellent editing, parody basic sexist institutions in our culture as well as stock, familiar, male/female stereotypes and classic situations in the Western film genre. There is also a tolerant, accepting laughter at aspects of the women’s movement itself.

The gentle ironic tone of most of the movie is set in the opening sequence which is a marvelous parody of a church service and of typical religiosity, complete with the sexism that entails. The credits emerge over a middle distance shot of a pink brick church on bright green grass. It looks like one from a fairy tale, with its black shutters and white door. Prudence’s daughter, Marilyn Landers, comes skipping into the frame, the folk music on the track undercutting the religious context. She has a saucy, impudent skip, moving arbitrarily from side to side. Dissolve to a minister, a woman in clerical robes, leading a group in singing “Nearer My God to Thee.” The comedy of the woman minister (later the cowboy) is reinforced by the close-up shots of the congregation, all women, a mixture of strange faces in odd disguises. The shots of people continue as the minister reads a selection from the Bible about women’s inferior status. Her words are undercut by shots of a lady asleep, of Marilyn’s saucy, impish looks, with the camera panning over the group to rest on a huge bonnet. Then Roberta Nodes, mocking the proper stance of people at a funeral, gets up to say a few words mourning the death of Hannah Prudence and bemoaning the departure of Hannah’s daughter, Marilyn “leaving where her mother was born and bred.”

This scene nicely establishes a conventional community’s set of values and attitudes, the old world, as it were, that Marilyn and many women in the film will be seen breaking away from or struggling with. Although the perspective is a comic one, the viewer understands only too well the reality of the conventional forms being mocked. The camera now cuts to a longshot of a boat with two women in it, pulling lazily away from the shore, drifting off down the river with soft dulcimer music on the track. The image is peaceful, rural and conveys feelings of freedom and carefreeness.

Cut to a close-up shot of a woman in black feathers (Frances Cima) leaning on her side, talking about this being the real West, the real life. We understand that the two women in the boat have met up with her, and that she is telling them her story. Her black clothes and feathers symbolize mourning, but also have night-club connotations that contrast with the content of her tale. The clothes reflect a despair and a giving up. She is apparently weary, feeling that her business on earth is done.

This next sequence, through the woman’s story, follows the parody of religious institutions with a comment on marriage. It is rather hard to-gauge the woman’s own attitude to her story, although the underlying intensity with which it is told reveals real pain and the woman’s narrative style is so vivid that one enters the tale completely. She tells of conventional marital feelings (being married to her husband felt like being married to God), her feeling that the idea of going to a retreat was like a second honeymoon, and of her terrible disillusionment there. Symbolically, of course, the tale of hideous mistreatment by the alcoholic husband-priest, complete with the beating of the woman and murder of the child, is true for the woman telling it. Yet, at the end, when her listeners question her, she declares she doesn't hate all men—just this particular one. The camera work in this sequence underscores its essential seriousness, the face being in close up all the time. Women’s vulnerability and suffering is here dramatized excellently.

Cut to a contrasting scene of a large woman (Judy March) in bonnet and bright red skirt, feeding chickens in a sunlit yard by a huge barn. Her clothes symbolize traditional virginal womanhood and provide a striking contrast to the woman in black. It is amazing how Paige has managed to make thematic connections between narratively completely discontinuous scenes. The repressive and hypocritical aspects of religion, introduced in the opening scene, were echoed in the second scene with the feathered woman, along with the introduction of a second theme—the repressive aspects of conventional marriage. The chicken lady, in the third sequence—it’s what everyone does, what a dutiful daughter should do. Meanwhile, she is dutifully taking care of her mother and father, and feeding the chickens, despite her utter boredom with her life.

All this is elicited through a conversation the chicken lady has with Roberta, who now comes down from the hills, complete with cowboy hat, gun and breeches (symbolizing independence) trying to find women to join her in a women’s commune. This theme of the commune, once introduced, provides the loose structure for the rest of the film, which centers around Robert’s attempt to convince women she meets to join her in the hills. Each woman, confronted in this way, responds to the challenge by revealing her consciousness  —her aims in life, her dreams for herself, her fantasies about her future, the ties to her present life, etc..

In the chicken lady sequence, Roberta and the lady are joined by the cowboy (Kathryn McHargue), who evokes a lot of response because of the male-like clothes. Her image is the typically liberated one of the early 70s—jeans, shorthair, shirt, heavy shoes. She’s attractive and charming, and neatly fields the challenges. This conversation, however, goes on too long. It is obviously improvised, and while many comments are witty, at times it drags. It ends humorously, with country music on the track again, the chicken lady in a new image with the gun. She is shooting wildly, and almost trips as she goes off with Roberta.

The fourth sequence opens with a marvelous cowboy image. The woman from the chicken lady scene is seen atop a horse on a hill, parodying numerous similar shots in Westerns, but at the same time symbolizing this woman’s strength and independence. The main themes of this sequence—whose highpoint is Roberta’s dream—is the contrast between independent womanhood, symbolized by both Roberta and the cowboy, and dependent or more traditional womanhood, symbolized primarily by the woman who wants to set up a dance hall in California or run off with “her” cowboy. Paige cuts from the shot of the cowboy on the hill to the dance hall woman, dressed appropriately in traditionally feminine clothes, long flowing skirt and flattering blouse. She is seen fighting with her friend (Frances Jones) over her wish to depart with her cowboy. This scene dissolves to the cowboy again. Her image punctuates the sequence, almost functioning like a refrain as an image of peace, solitude and strength.

Fade out, to open on Roberta, asleep, hat over face, stretched out on the ground. The camera moves in on her and then cuts to her dream which is told with Roberta’s standing, trance-like, in middle distance in the open field. Her dream in some ways parallels the feathered lady’s story at the start of the film. That bitter story of failure and disappointment revealed the inadequacies of social conventions and institutions. Roberta’s dream, in contrast, suggests an alternative vision of peace and harmony in a community of women. But there is a double-edged quality to Roberta’s dream as there had been to the feathered lady’s story. An intensity that suggests real involvement with the vision on a symbolic level is counterbalanced by an ironic commentary on aspects of the women’s movement in the early 70s-going back to nature, doing without men, and organic food. The dream paradoxically has traditional mythic elements in the description of women in organdy coming down to eat, songs flowing from their feet. Visions by Dante or Blake, of heavenly hosts of angels floating through the clouds, come to mind. The presumably deliberate analogy provides a comment on the utopian thinking that often characterized the early phase of the women’s movement. Real sincerity emerges, however, in the statement,

“All women there will be revered, and always ... always ... whatever they want. If I can tell them that, maybe I can get more people to come to the commune.”

The dream ends, and Sheila cuts to a close up of the cowboy again, this time happily yodeling to herself. It is a touching, real moment. We then cut to the quarrelling group around the dance hall woman, who are seen walking through the trees. Roberta stops them in a mock holdup, and they all sit down together to picnic, complete with guns and rifles. This scene is rather unsatisfactory. There is a lot of confusion because the women lose track of their fantasies and roles, and seem to be straining too hard for effect. Particularly awkward is an Indian (Dorothy Stensland) on a horse who keeps floating in and out of the scene, but no one seems to know how to bring her into the drama. But there’s a lot of fun at the expense of Westerns, with a mock tying up of the woman jealous of the cowboy, and so on. The scene ends with Roberta asking if they'll join her commune, and some discussion of this.

This leads into the final sequence of the film, which is the most complex and was probably the most difficult to edit. The pace of the film up to now has been slow and easy. The atmosphere by and large has been relaxed and humorous, with pleasant country music and slow conversations. The pace and tone of the last sequence are in contrast to all this. Editing is more rapid, and there are quick montage series of shots that add to the overall sense of tension and urgency. The actors are more themselves here, as the women begin to face the actual conflicts and differences among themselves. The style appropriately reflects the urgency and sensitivity of the issues raised.

The women are grouped around a campfire at night, and are deciding whether or not they will join Roberta. The darkness is suitable for the changed tone of things, and heightens the feeling of imminent separation. Important issues are raised, such as what women need men for. One woman asks, “What’s so terrific about men?” and is told by the feathered woman (Frances Cima) that she wouldn't be here if it weren't for men, and furthermore that it isn't right to bring a child into an unnatural situation like a women’s commune. Women who disagree with her want to know what she wants with men, and they get into the issues of sex, love, friendship, etc.. The camera slowly circles the group as the conversation goes on, catching faces and expressions, and the seriousness of it all, in sudden contrast to the previous humorous treatment of essentially the same issues.

Interspersed in this conversation are some of the women’s fantasies about how the commune would have turned out had they tried. The chicken woman is seen in long lines of corn, bemoaning the insect-ridden corn and noting how everyone has changed for the worse. Cut back to the campfire group, and the Indian’s bitter comment that she’s sorry these are the kinds of attitudes people have. Back to the chicken lady’s fantasy and her comment that Susie Starlet should have been allowed to have her dance hall. Paige then cuts to Susie, who is seen coming into the corn field, all dressed in white with a white chalked face, reminiscent of tribal dancers.

We cut beck to the tree and the campfire, Roberta now in close up, colors rich and varied, the tone softened. Paige intercuts shots from Roberta’s original dream sequence, reminding us of the positive vision along with these negative ones emerging now. The camera closes in on Susie Starlet’s face around the campfire, and we then cut to her fantasy in the corn field, where she is again all dressed in white with white face makeup. In long distance, she begins to talk about her misery, and then goes completely crazy, jumping up and down and appearing like a frail rag doll. Back at the campfire, the cowboy talks of going to San Francisco, to get away from it all. The movie ends with Susie Starlet’s friend, dressed in horse riding clothes, miming riding away, to the sound of “Camptown Races” on the track.

The ending of the film thus is somewhat negative, and students in a class always want to know why Paige didn't show the commune working out. Isn't Paige conforming to the stereotype that women will fail at anything they undertake? Paige, however, feels that the film shows women acting in real ways rather than as we might wish women would act. I think her film is especially valuable in bringing to consciousness the kinds of images women in fact do have of themselves and that are a result of having been socialized in a patriarchal system. Even the images of freedom and independence have a masculine form: we simply do not have other natural images, since in our system men do symbolize autonomy and self-motivation.

In allowing the women to develop their own “stories,” Paige has captured diverse and important unconscious self-definitions that apply to many women. In letting women’s unconscious minds surface through the fantasies, Paige has arrived at some truths that we may not like but need to know. Implicit in the fantasies is the influence of the media—especially movies—in shaping women’s ideas of themselves. Instead of focusing explicitly on social and political arenas, as in the cinema verité films discussed previously, Paige focuses on some women’s struggle with unconscious wishes, desires and goals in life as they have been shaped in this society, and on other women’s fantasies for alternative ways of living.

Part of the value of Paige’s cinematic intervention lies in her sincere appreciation of the women she was working with and of whatever they had to say. This is the kind of caring and attention that women rarely get on the screen. In the commercial cinema, no one listens to women or cares what they really think. Paige’s accepting and genuinely humorous attitude is most welcome. Women are seen in all their different mixtures of weakness and strength, their capacities for togetherness and their leaning toward separateness; their ability to change and their clinging to conventional roles. But none of them is judged. Because of this the viewer also accepts them, regardless of their differences from her.

Besides being funny, enjoyable and visually interesting, the film is useful in revealing to women the kind of mental world many of us live in. The narrative discontinuities, the careful juxtapositions of contrasting images, the judicious use of sound for satiric comment -- all these create the feeling of a world in transition. Not located within any specific place or time, but apparently trying to break from an oppressive past, with their futures uncertain, these women perfectly represent the confused, transitional situation of many women today. The unresolved ending was fitting for Paige’s overall intentions in the film: she wanted to help us understand the reality of our situation as women in a patriarchal culture, an understanding that is a necessary precondition for discovering strategies for change. She did not intend to anticipate answers, leaving this rather for people watching the film to speculate about.

In introducing to women’s films the world of imagination and of fantasy, Sheila Paige has indicated a valuable area for women to work with. We need more films like this one; not, of course, to replace the directly political and psychological ones that I discussed at the start, but to compliment those literal kinds of explorations and consciousness raising with a different and often neglected mode.(17)


1. The term “cinema verite,” adapted from a phrase of Dziga Vertov’s, refers to the French film style that evolved during the late 50s, in reaction to conventional, large-studio kinds of film where staging, post-production dubbing, and other devices interfere with the so-called “cinema truth.” The term is now loosely used for documentary films made with handheld camera, shot on location and not using actors.

2. Kate Millett’s Flying refers to the conditions of the film’s making. For information regarding CONTINUOUS WOMAN, I talked to Darlene Marvey from the Twin Cities Film Collective.

3. Other films in this category are ROSELAND, which stimulates discussion around female media stereotypes, so drastically and confidently does Rose depart from them; SYLVIA, FRAN AND JOY, which follows three different styles of marriage: one that ended in divorce and an independent life for the woman, one a traditional marriage, and the third a counterculture sort of marriage; GROWING UP FEMALE, which explores the various lives of six contrasting women of different ages, classes and backgrounds; and SWEET BANANAS, which traces the contrasting lives of some working class and upper class women, who end up all getting along.

4. ROSELAND, as mentioned in note 3, is an extreme kind of intervention of this type on the simple level of critiquing the usual cinematic image of women.

5. See “Dialogues with British Feminist Filmmakers and Critics,” by E. Ann Kaplan (Women and Film, forthcoming).

6. Ibid, p. 5.

7. “Women’s Cinema as Counter-Cinema,” in Notes on Women’s Cinema, edited by Claire Johnston (London, SEFT Pamphlet, 1973), p. 29

8. Ibid., p. 20.

9. Ibid., p. 29, In connection with cinema verité as a film style, see Eileen McGarry, “Documentary, Realism and Women’s Cinema,” in Women and Film, 2:7 (Summer, 1975), pp. 50-59.

10. Cook and Johnston, “The Place of Women in the Cinema of Raoul Walsh,” in Raoul Walsh, Phil Hardy, ed. (Colchester, England, 1974. An Edinburgh Film Festival Pamphlet); and The Work of Dorothy Arzner, ed. Claire Johnston (London, 1975; a British Film Institute Pamphlet), with essays by Cook and Johnston.

11. “Dialogues.”

12. Juliet Mitchell, Women’s Estate (London, 1972), Chapter I.

13. In England, the first women’s films were about working women, e.g., Esther Ronay’s WOMEN OF THE RHONDDA; BETTSHANGER, KENT 1972, made by the London Women’s Film Group; WOMEN AND THE BILL, made by Esther Ronay and the Notting Hill Women’s Liberation Group.

14. Norm Fruchter, “Games in the Arena: Propaganda of the Spectacle,” in Liberation Magazine, May, 1971.

15. Laura Mulvey has recently made an avant-garde film, PENTHESILEA (with Peter Wollen), that attempts to interrogate the notion of identification in the cinema; Susan Stockman’s films consist of beautiful but abstract images; Mildred Iatrou, presently a student at City College of New York, has made a striking short film in a Maya Deren style, with its unique ideas as well.

16. Sheila Paige visited my class twice following a showing of her film. This material was obtained in class discussion.

17. I wish to thank Julia Lesage for her thoughtful reading of the manuscript and the useful suggestions she made.