Sundance Babes: Women Directors–Anders, Allison

If Allison Anders’ screen work had been as interesting as her provocative offscreen persona, she would have become the most prominent contemporary female director. Unfortunately, it is not. With all the attention surrounding her career and a McArthur Foundation Genius Award, Anders remains an uneven filmmaker, with only one satisfying film, Gas Food Lodging.

Anders professes no interest in what she dubs the “masculine model” of filmmaking and its limited vocabulary, with “three-act structure and certain kind of pacing, one that sets out with goals and resolves things.” She is more intrigued by a movie like The Hours and the Times, which doesn’t use a “traditional model,” instead creating a new narrative language, one of process. But theory and praxis don’t cohere in Anders’ case. She hasn’t applied new models to her work, and her latest, the astoundingly inept Grace of My Heart (1996), is conventional in the worst sense of the term.

Anders’ work, however, is personal. Her first, co-directed feature, Border Radio (1988), about the punk scene in L.A., was done while she “partied and smoked and listened to Fairport Convention with a bunch of guys.” Displaying grit, vitality, and honesty, Gas Food Lodging (1992), the story of a single mother bringing up two teenage daughters in a dusty New Mexico town, drew on Anders’ experience as a single mom. For Mi Vida Loca (1995), she looked no further than her Echo Park neighborhood and its Hispanic girl gangs.

Anders works mostly by instinct in her prefernce for scripts about working-class women. A cross between a 1960s earth mother and a Hell’s Angels biker, she sports long, untamed red hair and floral tattoo on her forearm which bears the names of her daughters, Tiffany and Devon, both born out of the wedlock. Her checkered background proved ro be an asset to her career, as she said: “I’ve always had this way of turning what was shameful into this kind of boastfulness.” Told that being an unwed mom would ruin her life, it turned out to be an opportunity: “It was neat to see that my single parent background ended up being why my career really kicked in.”

Born in Kentucky, Anders was abandoned by her father at the age of five, sexually abused throughout childhood, and gang-raped at twelve. Her stepfather’s violent behavior escalated and one night he held a gun to her head. Anders is proud that her daughters are the first generation in her family to have not been sexually abused. When Anders’ favorite Beatle, Paul McCartney, was rumored to be dead, she retreated into a fantasy bond with him. During the “Paul Is Dead” hysteria, she claims to have heard McCartney beckoning her to join him in the grave. Trying to kill herself, she spiraled into a self-destructive catatonia–“I just went nuts, I just went over the edge,” she recalled.

At 17, Anders dropped out of high school and headed back to Kentucky to live with relatives. A bus meeting with an English student took her to London, where she worked in a bar until she got pregnant. When her beau didn’t want her to have the baby, she returned to L.A., getting by on waitressing and welfare. Anders enrolled in a junior college and later attended UCLA’s film school, where she became intrigued with Wim Wenders: “I read a huge article about him, and I loved the things he said. I thought this is exactly what I want to do with film.” A fan letter to the German director culminated in internship on his movie, Paris, Texas.

Border Radio

Border Radio, co-directed by Kurt Voss, Anders and Dean Lent, was a “no-budget” movie about the marginal lives of rock musicians. Shot in a gritty black-and-white, it reflected the insecurity in musicians’ lives, their strenuous struggle to survive. But it was the regard for an unproduced script that gave Anders the chance to direct Gas Food Lodging, which represented the perfect meeting of artist and subject. “Putting a huge amount of autobiographical stuff into the script,” the strongest scene is the one in which a young woman tells a British geologist about the traumatic experience of being gang-raped. Though touching on issues relevant to women, Anderson was careful not to make a stridently anti-male film.

Gas Food Lodging

Adapted from Richard Peck’s novel Don’t Look and It Won’t Hurt, it’s the story of Nora (Brooke Adams), a working-class mom who lives in a trailer with her two daughters. Trudi (Ione Skye) seems to be a tough, foul-mouthed tramp, but she’s essentially a victimized girl. Shade (Fairuza Balk), her younger sister, who spends her time watching Mexican melodramas in a local moviehouse, dreams of reuniting her mother with the father she has never met. The film cuts deep into the dreary life and anxieties of single women, but, for all the bleakness, they are not devoid of humor or awareness that life could be better.

With a tight focus on the women’s relations with one another, the film depicts thankless jobs, trailer homes–and yearning for something to happen. “I don’t think anyone rescues anyone else in this film,” Anders said, “The men change nothing for these women.” Perceiving the movie as less about sex or love than the search for intimacy, Anders claimed she “could have easily made this intimacy come from women.” But she cannot: Impossible men are an issue for Anders, on screen and off, as she confessed: “I don’t feel safe with men a lot of the times because inevitably I’m going to be made to feel like I’m crazy.”

After the film, Anders received numerous letters from teenage mothers who wanted to connect with one of their own. “I fell in love with it,” said Callie Khouri, Thelma and Louise’s scripter, who was a juror at Sundance where Anders’ film premiered. “I was jealous of it in the best possible sense.” Blessed by the N.Y. Film Critics Circle with a Best First Film Award, Gas Food Lodging is by far Anders’ best film.

Mi Vida Loca

For her next picture, Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life), Anders turned to Latinas gangs. Like Gas Food Lodging, the movie concerns the plight of teenage girls who become welfare mothers, stuck with no future outside the barrio. Demonstrating her commitment to working-class women, Anders focuses on Echo Park Latinas, providing a fresh respite from the male-themed movies that have dominated the gang genre. Films about street gangs have been replete with cliches and stereotypes, even the gritty ones dwell on macho, volatile men who stake out their territories in graffiti and blood, and women who are mostly sex objects.

Giving the cholas their say, Mi Vida Loca is about female adolescents who seek solace in outlaw life in defiance of their poverty. The nonlinear narrative is divided into three interrelated chapters, which depict the barrio without sensationalism or condescension. The melodrama, which consists of long flashbacks, interweaves a romantic interlude about a woman who falls in love with her prison pen pal. The first tale is about the animosity between best friends Mousie (Seidy Lopez) and Sad Girl (Angel Aviles) over their mutual boyfriend. The lighter second story concerns the release of Giggles (Marlo Marron) from jail and her return to Echo Park. A more ironic tone resurfaces with the closing segment, which involves the disillusionment of Blue Eyes (Magali Alvarado) with the playboy she worships.

The mix of an unknown professionals with actual homegirls pays off: It’s almost impossible to distinguish the actors from the residents. Throughout, there’s keen attention to textures, with a sumptuous camera recording background details. In all of her films, Anders has employed a heightened sense of color. Here, Blue Eyes wears a red dress that matches the bridge, and a closeup of Sad Girl’s mouth reveals erotic lips that are as purple as petals.

Anders’s intent was to show that the women don’t need men. But they do. Sad Girl and Mousie have been best friends since childhood, but their friendship is strained when each becomes pregnant by Ernesto (Jacob Vargas), a sweet-tempered drug dealer who cares more for his painted truck than for either of them. Tough around the edges, but soft at the center, the film comes from Anders’ heart rather than her head. One girl says, “Women don’t use weapons to prove a point, they use weapons for love,” but before the movie is over, a rival proves her wrong. The women exist in a world where struggle are expressed in absolute terms of love or hate.

In its blend of ethnography and flawed storytelling, the movie wavers, revealing Anders’ uncertainty over whether she was making a melodrama or a documentary. The episodic structure accentuates the film’s problematic shifts in tone from romanticism to realism. And the use of multiple voice-overs is confusing, especially in the beginning, when the two main characters–Mousie and Sad Girl–narrate their stories. The logic of the narrative is flawed, as Holly Willis pointed out, because the film doesn’t convince us that the girls are irrevocably entrapped by their milieu.

Mi Vida Loca received a lot of publicity as the first movie about Latinas. But whereas her background as an unwed mother proved an asset for Gas Food Lodging, Anders shows no understanding of her characters–an Latino filmmaker might have been more sensitive to the material. Though Anders talked to the bario girls at length, her script lacks the intimacy and immediacy of Gas Food Lodging, made as it is from the outside.

To her credit, Anders doesn’t patronize the Latino community with another stereotypical portrait. “The last thing I wanted,” Anders declared in a manifesto, “and certainly the last thing these kids needed was to be colonized by a white liberal, preaching a point of view that hands out easy solutions.” Nonetheless, her treatment lacks a discernible point of view, which may stem from her confusion honorable sociology with mediocre filmmaking.

Grace of My Heart

Anders’ next feature, Grace of My Heart, began when Scorsese wanted to team her with his friend Ileana Douglas for a film he would produce. The story traces the career of a woman who yearns to be a singer, but ends up as a Tin Pan Alley songwriter. Spanning from the 1950s through the psychedelic 1970s, and covering too much thematic ground, Anders falls into a predictable narrative rhythm: Every scene is followed with the song it inspired, and back again. The men represent narrowly conceived types, and the relationships too schematic. Anders’ message–in the 1960s guys were either creeps or married men–is reductive and embarrassing.

Instead of offering an in-depth look, Anders opted for a sprawling, old-fashioned melodrama in the vein of A Star Is Born and The Way We Were. As Richard Corliss pointed out, a historian could quibble with the details, but the problem is not historical, it’s dramatic. The Anders touch–energy, color–is in limited supply, failing to compensate for an obvious approach, as when a character intones, “marriage is a bourgeois convention.”

Critic Ella Taylor noted that Grace of My Heart is the first film in which Anders achieves a measure of distance from her central creative neurosis: the search for an absent male. At film’s end, Denise is told: “Your talent has been meaningless to you.” It’s the first conscious evaluation of what has been the unconscious heart of Anders’ work. Grace of My Heart is the story of a woman for whom no amount of success can make up for the fact that the absent male is her first priority, only now she knows it. In its emotional essentials, the movie is the untidy story of Anders herself.”

If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film(NYU Press, hardcover 2000; paperback 2001).