CNN aired a six-part series on the history of American cinema throughout July and August. Produced by Tom Hanks and Werner Herzog as an extension of their successful “Decades” series, the 12-hour docu-style series The Movies is an informative tribute to the cultural impact of cinema - and culture’s influence on the everchanging film landscape.
Notable contributors like Steven Spielberg, Amy Hecklering, Paul Thomas Anderson, Julia Roberts, Frances McDormand, Edgar Wright and the late John Singleton (to whom the series is dedicated) provide insight on classic films of every genre. The Movies also makes time to analyze and explain the influence of more niche cinephile films and bring them to a whole new audience.
Organized by decade, beginning with the 2000s and working back toward the early 20th century, the excellent series dedicates major portions of its 12 hours to the history of women in film.
Researcher Dr. Martha Lauzen and author Alicia Malone both speak to the fluctuating roles of female filmmakers throughout the decades. Screenwriters like Robin Swicord and directors like Sharon Stone and Heckerling are also interviewed, along with several female critics from publications like Variety, the Hollywood Reporter and the New York Times, offering expertise on iconic films from every genre and time period.
The “golden age” episode discusses everything from Greta Garbo’s influence on the talkies to Shirley Temple’s young success. Ginger Rogers and the famous “backwards and in heels” phenomenon is praised, along with the genesis of screwball comedies.
“Between 1930 and 1934, filmmakers were really free to explore subjects like sex and violence, and what you ended up getting were some very fascinating female characters who were sexually liberated. It’s quite shocking to see what they were able to get away with,” Malone said.
Each episode takes a moment to acknowledge the importance of all cinematic points of view - and doesn’t shy away from the clear track record of disparity for women and people of color. But it’s the 2000s episode that truly hones in on the importance of female directors like Kathryn Bigelow, Sofia Coppola and Nancy Meyers.
“Nancy Meyers invented a kind of filmmaking that is glossy that is fun that’s romantic and that acknowledges the lives of the women who are watching the movie,” Swicord said.
The 120-minute episode also breaks down screenwriter Susannah Grant’s Oscar-winning Erin Brocavich, screenwriter Diana Ossana’s Brokeback Mountain, Patty Jenkins’ recent hit Wonder Woman and the record-breaking indie success of Nia Vardalos' My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
“I thought we would be shown in Greek church basements, and I couldn’t even believe we got released in theaters,” Vardolos says of her film, which went on to become the highest-grossing independent feature of all time.
As more diverse voices are amplified in filmmaking, The Movies is a fascinating and refreshingly balanced approach to the history of cinema. Analysis from all points of view make it a consistently interesting and varied docuseries. Critics and writers, producers and directors, executives and actors are all interviewed, of varying ages, genders and races.
The film industry and its systemic inclusivity issues could take a cue from its production companies, Playtone Pictures and Herzog & Co. We can’t change the history of a gender-disparate industry, but we can do better now - and we can make a concerted effort to lift up the filmmakers who might be forgotten, no matter their gender or background.
The Movies is now available to stream on CNNgo and VOD.
© Georgiana E. Presecky (8/26/2019) FF2 Media
Poster for The Movies courtesy of CNN. Photos Courtesy of the AV Club, 20th Century Fox and Universal Pictures