Tag Archives: Women Filmmakers

Art Institute of Chicago: Nothing Personal

This week I’m in Chicago!

“Nothing Personal”

During my visit to the fabulous Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), I was surprised and delighted to stumble upon a provocative exhibition that in part relates to one of my favorite movies: Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman (1996). The exhibit “Nothing Personal” interrogates the politics of the archive and includes the fictional, photographic archive of Fae Richards (Lisa Marie Bronson), who is an elusive, but central character in Dunye’s movie. For the movie, artist Zoe Leonard created an archive charting Fae Richards’s life. It’s these fabricated documents that are now on display at the AIC.

The Watermelon Woman follows young black, lesbian filmmaker Cheryl (Cheryl Dunye), who works in a video store in Philadelphia with her best friend, and occasional camera assistant, Tamara (Valarie Walker). When she’s not working, Cheryl is making a documentary movie about the deceased Fae Richards, a black actress who featured in Hollywood 1930s movies playing “Mammie” roles and who only ever received credit as the “Watermelon Woman.” Over the course of her research Cheryl discovers that Richards was romantically involved with movie director Martha Page – a type of Dorothy Arzner figure. Cheryl shoots her documentary on video, and the clips from her film are intercut with Cheryl’s confessional video diary, real archival footage, and the faux, fabricated footage from Richards’s movies.

Cheryl records her video diary, while surrounded by her archive of Fae Richards memorabilia.

Cheryl records her video diary, while surrounded by her archive of Fae Richards memorabilia. The Watermelon Woman (1996).

During Cheryl’s quest to make her documentary, the film repeatedly and brilliantly challenges archival practices. Cheryl visits a multitude of sites in pursuit of information about Richards’s life. She first pays a visit to Lee Edwards’s home: Edwards is a black film historian and collector of race movies. While Edwards’s collection is vast, when Cheryl asks him about the Watermelon Woman he tells her “women are not my specialty.” Cheryl and Tamara next visit the public library where at the reference desk they encounter a snooty white male librarian, coded as gay. He tells the women that the library doesn’t hold any reference category on black women in film.  A further excursion takes Cheryl to the Center for Lesbian Info and Technology (cheekily referred to as C.L.I.T.). This haphazardly organized, comically bureaucratic archive run by an all-volunteer collective holds a few items on Richards’s life, but Cheryl is forbidden from using them in her film (Many of these photographs appear on exhibition today at AIC). While the movie makes a serious political point about the difficulties of conducting research on history’s most marginalized people and explores a black filmmaker’s complex relationship with America’s exploitative movie heritage, Dunye’s film never loses its sense of cinephilia and fun.


Cheryl is scolded by one of the archivists at C.L.I.T. for attempting to videotape items from the Fae Richards Collection. The Watermelon Woman (1996).

The mise-en-scene of the video store where Cheryl works also resembles something of an archive due to the stacks and stacks of videotapes that loom behind the store’s front desk. In addition to archivists, the clerks perform the roles of film curators, programmers, and reviewers. They order and collect the non-mainstream videos they want to see (many of these are lesbian and pornographic). They also advise customers on what movies they should rent, and in the “two for one video deal” Cheryl suggests movies that will complement each other. The Watermelon Woman is a movie indebted to videotape, but it’s also something of a celebration of video’s aesthetic and the medium itself.  In the nineties, the innovations and affordability of the camcorder along with the availability of video rentals permitted a new film culture to flourish and enabled the New Queer Cinema movement. A movement indisputably enriched by Dunye’s contributions.

Cheryl and Tamara working together in the video store. The Watermelon Woman (1996).

Cheryl and Tamara working together in the video store. The Watermelon Woman (1996).

If you watch The Watermelon Woman today you may be struck by how the movie hasn’t dated, and this seems quite a feat given its relationship to videotape! I could almost believe Cheryl and Tamara are out there right now working in the last video store in Philadelphia. But rather than timelessness, perhaps this is a matter of timeliness given the parallels between The Watermelon Woman and Netflix’s hit show Orange is the New Black (2014-). To draw just one superficial comparison, the relationship and banter that Cheryl and Tamara share in the video store very much resembles the friendship and back-and-forth between Taystee and Poussey, who work together in the library in OITNB. Unsurprisingly, I’m not the first person to have made this connection. Journalists have asked Dunye to comment on the similarities between her work and OITNB, especially since Dunye actually made a movie about a womens’ prison. Thankfully, Dunye’s nineties movies seem to be receiving greater recognition today. As critic Ruby Rich notes about New Queer Cinema – the term she coined – “the movement…was always eleventy-zillion light-years ahead of the mainstream.” It therefore seems about the right time for the AIC to put on this exhibition that partly pays homage to The Watermelon Woman.

You can currently stream The Watermelon Woman on Amazon Prime.


Another highlight of my visit to the AIC was encountering Edward Hopper’s celebrated painting Nighthawks (1947).

Edward Hopper

What you don’t get a sense of from reproductions of the painting is the luminosity of the yellow. I stood four rooms back and could still see the brightly lit diner glowing in the distance.

Nighthawks Glowing in the Distance. On Display at AIC.


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The Long Career of Virginia Van Upp

When I’ve given presentations on movie producer Virginia Van Upp, I’ve discussed her 45+ year career in Hollywood as falling into four major phases. In my research I’m discovering that the final phase of Van Upp’s career is proving more complex and surprising than the current official narrative.

“Growing up with Hollywood” (1902-1934)

Before deciding on a career as a screenwriter, Van Upp held a variety of positions within the burgeoning movie industry of Los Angeles. These roles included: child star, director’s assistant, editor, script reader, casting agent, actor’s representative, and secretary to Horace Jackson. The knowledge she gained from these jobs (actor’s agent in particular), would significantly help Van Upp in the next three phases of her career.

“The Paramount Years” (1934-42)

“The Columbia Years” (1942-47)

“The Wilderness Years” (1948-1970)

After leaving Columbia, Van Upp spent several years trying to launch independent movie projects and wrote and produced three documentaries in Germany for the U.S State Dept. She also worked on a number of movies for which she is uncredited. I thought this final phase would be hard to find materials on, but my research to date shows that these years were some of the most interesting, prolific, and creative of Van Upp’s career.

I’m looking forward to visiting USC, UCLA, and Margaret Herrick Library in August and discovering more about Van Upp (and her mother, Hollywood scenarist Helen Van Upp).

Van Upp Meeting Luis César Amadori in 1945

Virginia Van Upp meeting with Luis César Amadori when he visited Los Angeles in 1945. On Van Upp’s desk are the script and costumes for Gilda (1946). Sourced from archive.org

Above is Virginia Van Upp meeting with (Italian born) Argentine director Luis César Amadori in 1945 at Columbia Pictures. The two filmmakers shared an interesting discussion about Hollywood cultural stereotypes and women working in the film industry. Upon leaving Columbia, Van Upp would travel extensively in South America and Europe, associating with dignitaries and filmmakers.

You can read more about the fascinating connection between Hollywood and Argentine film during the 1930s and 1940s here.

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What I’m reading…

Shelley Stamp’s Lois Weber in Early Hollywood.


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Jurassic Fail

This is American film producer Cathrine Curtis…

Cathrine Curtis

Cathrine Curtis (sourced from MHDL)

…who in 1920 wanted to make a film about dinosaurs (these dinosaurs).


Unfortunately, her intended jurassic project was to go very, very wrong.


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Columbia Pictures, Rita Hayworth, and Virginia Van Upp

In my continued search for materials relating to Hollywood screenwriter-producer Virginia Van Upp, I was last week fortunate enough to visit the American Heritage Center (AHC) in Laramie, Wyoming, where I made some exciting discoveries.

The AHC holds an extensive collection of materials concerning the day-to-day operation of Columbia Pictures (1929 -1974). Van Upp worked at Columbia between the years 1941 – 1947. Her most successful movie at the studio was Gilda (1946), which she both wrote and produced. She briefly returned to work for the studio in 1951, assisting Rita Hayworth with the production of Affair in Trinidad.

The Columbia Pictures Collection at the AHC primarily consists of daily teletypes transmitted between the New York and Los Angeles offices. In these communications studio producers discuss particular films, publicity stunts, music rights, but above all else: Rita Hayworth! Discussions about Hayworth concern her films, contracts, clothes, travel arrangements, future productions, relationships….etc.

In addition to the teletypes, the collection also contains a few “Story Conference” transcriptions in which writers and producers discuss problems with various scripts and films. Among these records I found a few pages pertaining to the making of Gilda.

A big THANK YOU to the archivists at the AHC, all of whom are amazing.

My next port of call will be the Margaret Herrick Library in Los Angeles.



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An Evening of Illuminations: Germaine Dulac’s Movies Screen at New York University



Lillian Constantini (unidentified shot) from “Germaine Dulac: A Cinema of Sensations”


On the evening of Wednesday, March 4th in the Cinema Studies Department at NYU, guest speaker Dr. Tami Williams (English Dept. U of Wisconsin – Milwaukee) presented a program of moving images by French feminist and pioneer of avant-garde cinema, Germaine Dulac (1882-1942). Williams introduced and contextualized each of the movies screened, drawing from her recent book Germaine Dulac: A Cinema of Sensations (University of Illinois Press, 2014).  Continue reading

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Mulvey at Yale, and Varda at NYU

Today (April 30) I attended an excellent conference entitled “Curating the Moving Image” organized by the graduate students of the Film Dept. at Yale. Guests included curators from MoMA, MoMI, BAM, Anthology..etc. Following the final panel, Laura Mulvey (yes! Laura Mulvey!) delivered the Reni Celeste Memorial Lecture in the auditorium of Yale’s Humanities Center.

This has been a crazy month: Agnes Varda spoke to students in the Cinema Studies Dept. at NYU two weeks ago!

I will attempt to write these events up and post here as they each provided much valuable advice and insight for archivists, junior curators, and film scholars.

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Archival Research on Virginia Van Upp

Despite asserting a historically rare degree of control for a woman working within Hollywood’s studio system of the 1930s and 40s, producer-screenwriter Virginia Van Upp (1902 -1970) has received little scholarly attention from film historians.

My research project entitled “The Rise of Virginia Van Upp” examines the filmmaker’s varied and impressive forty-five year career in Hollywood. Beginning as a child actor during the silent era, Van Upp went on to perform a wide range of jobs in the industry from screenwriting for Paramount, to executive producing such classics as Gilda and The Impatient Years at Columbia, and lastly working in ‘the wilderness’ attempting to launch several independent projects. Not unlike Van Upp, the ambitious female characters in her movies often use the media to curate images of themselves that boost their success. I suggest that through talent and media savvy, Van Upp established a unique auteurist authority for translating her vision from page to screen.


In addition to the close analysis of Van Upp’s movies, my research takes me on a tour of the studio archives, interviews with family members, and working through the hundreds of national, trade, and fan paper entries that address Van Upp’s career.

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