Six Week Film School

Katharine Hepburn as the aviatrix heroine of "Christopher Strong" (1933), directed by Hollywood's only woman filmmaker of the 1930s, Dorothy Arzner. It's the kick-off film in this semester's edition of the Six-Week Film School at the Normal Theater.

NORMAL — Never let it be said that you can't devise your own curriculum ... even if it isn't yours to devise.

For the spring semester edition of the Normal Theater's Six-Week Film School, which premiered in the fall of 2016, the curriculum theme is "Wonder Women Directors," the timing of which couldn't be anymore on point.

According to school headmaster, Illinois State University film professor William C. McBride, "on my way out of the theater following the post-screen discussion of one of Scorsese's films last fall (Martin Scorsese was the fall semester subject), a female patron approached me and asked 'why not do a series on female directors?'"

Her wish was his command: The free series re-convenes in its usual 7 p.m. Wednesday berth on Jan. 24 with just that theme.

"And given the current cultural moment regarding harassment and gender inequality in Hollywood, Washington and everywhere else — along with the Golden Globes snubbing of female directors — the timing seems perfect," says McBride.

He adds: "This conversation and cultural moment gained steam following the release of the 'Access Hollywood' tape wherein the chief executive of the current administration detailed his violent, disparaging approach to women."

Also adding to the good timing is the fact that Wonder Women Directors comes fast on the heels of the Normal Theater's recent regular-schedule showings of the documentary, "Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story," which revealed the high-IQ sex symbol's pioneering work in the field of technology.

Though there have been a handful of successful women directors on the international front over the decades, McBride says "I wanted to stay with six American female directors" (noting that one of the six, Ida Lupino, was British-born, but spent her years as both star and director in Hollywood).

In addition to Lupino, who directed a series of low-budget melodramas in the 1950s, then moved into TV directing for most of the remainder of her behind-the-camera career, the series showcases:

  • Hollywood's first-ever woman director, Dorothy Arzner, whose heyday was the 1930s and 1940s.
  • Penny Marshall, the most commercially successful woman director of her era (1980s-1990s).
  • Sofia Coppola, of the Coppola family film dynasty and still at work on the indie front 15 years after her debut.
  • Ava DuVernay, whose "Selma" became the first film directed by a woman of color to win a Best Picture (if not Best Director) Oscar nomination.
  • Patty Jenkins, whose recent "Wonder Woman" became the first comic book blockbuster directed by a woman.

Following are capsule descriptions of the six films, which will be introduced, per tradition, by McBride. Where noted, he will be joined by several guest presenters over the semester's course:

Jan. 24: "Christopher Strong" (1933), directed by Arzner, with Katharine Hepburn in one of her defining early roles as a free-spirited female aviator who becomes involved with a married member of British Parliament. McBride calls the film "daring with its sordid love affair and controversial ending that succeeds in eluding the 1930s Hays Code by setting it all in London." 

Jan. 31: "The Hitch-Hiker" (1953), directed by Lupinio: No feminist themes here, but a hard-nosed noir on par with anything been turned about by her male counterparts at the time. It's about two everymen (Edmond O'Brien, Frank Lovejoy) who pick up a serial-killing hitcher (William Talman) with a paralyzed eyelid that keeps him watching them, even while asleep. McBride: "It manages to critique right-wing McCarthy sentiments by having the crazed mass murderer mouth racist, anti-immigrant remarks." (Li Zeng, head of ISU's Theatre and Film Studies, will join McBride for remarks.)

Feb. 7: "A League of Their Own" (1992), directed by Marshall: The story of the first all-female baseball league that springs up in the Midwest, circa the World War II era. Marshall had one of her biggest hits with this film, approaching even the blockbuster box office levels of "Big" four years prior. (Shari Zeck, interim dean, Milner Library, will join McBride for remarks.)

Feb. 21: "Lost in Translation" (2003), directed by Coppola: A small chamber piece about a lonely, aging movie star (Bill Murray) and a conflicted newlywed (Scarlett Johansson) who cross paths in Tokyo for a memorable encounter. Coppola: "There's so many more female directors now than when I started. That's encouraging. Maybe it's because it's such an all-encompassing job, and if you have a family, it's harder to do. But there are female surgeons."

Feb. 28: "Selma" (2014), directed by DuVernay: McBride calls DuVernay's Oscar-nominated chronicle of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s campaign to secure equal voting rights via an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, "a momentous achievement." DuVernay may have lost an Oscar bid in 2014, but just this past Monday night she was named Entertainer of the Year at the NAACP Image Awards. (Chamere Poole, a Ph.D. candidate from ISU's Department of English, will join McBride for remarks.)

March 7: "Wonder Woman" (2017), directed by Jenkins: The box office blockbuster from this past summer is probably the most overtly feminist film on the list ... with, per its huge success, no end likely in sight. (Ann Johnson, a Department of Sociology Masters student, and Eric Wesselmann, a Department of Psychology assistant professor, will join McBride for remarks.)

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