Richard Linklater and Jim Strouse:

Two Independent American Directors Who Embrace Genderless Feminist Ideas

Tamara Hammond  

The representation of women in the media, and, more specifically, in film, has been aligned with discriminatory patriarchal discourse since film’s inception in the late 1890s. Cinema continues to portray women in stereotypical roles as fetishized sex symbols or mothers, while violence against women dominates even the most contemporary works of the twenty-first century. Despite the scarce number of films that differ from the mainstream, there is visible improvement within progressive independent cinema, which offers alternative images of complicated, well-rounded female characters that counter the predominant discourse normalizing violence against female characters. These films tend to be low budget, overlooked by Hollywood studios, and thus not profitable. Since its creation in the 1960s and the 1970s, American independent cinema has reflected a counterculture informed by human rights movements in the United States. I will discuss two contemporary independent films that avoid violence and represent women in more progressive, non-stereotypical ways: writer/director Jim Strouse’s The Incredible Jessica James (2017), featured at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, and Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight (2013). Both films portray heterosexual relationships with strong, independent, career-oriented, female protagonists (the former interracial, and the latter international). Both directors provide the female protagonists with platforms and freedom to express their feminist views. Important common threads in these two films are their promotion of stories about female characters that are violence free--a rare phenomenon in patriarchal mainstream films--and the fact that the couples in both films cross some boundaries, either racial or national.

These two progressive films are both from the new millennium, respectively, 2017 and 2013. Rather than reflecting chronologically the state of female representation, my focus is on the advancement of patriarchal ideology or its renouncement. Of the two films, Jim Strouse’s The Incredible Jessica James is more progressive in portraying a black female protagonist. It is perhaps more conventional in form, but still advanced in terms of breaking racial and gender stereotypes. Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight is insightful in depicting relationships and a female protagonist that do not succumb to Hollywood’s categories. It lacks diversity in its Euro-centrism, but does offer a cross-national perspective. While both films could provide a more clearly feminist perspective, nevertheless, they deviate from Hollywood’s stereotypes for female representation and are decisively not serving the interests of the ruling patriarchy.

I examine The Incredible Jessica James because the protagonist is black and female, and the director is white and male. It also features lead and supporting minority characters, thus reflecting a realistic ratio of the black population in NYC, where the narrative takes place. Furthermore, my interest was prompted by the display of non-heterosexual orientation beyond the interracial relationships, and more importantly, class inequality, rarely discussed in non-racial terms in mainstream films. The second film, Before Midnight, was chosen for different reasons--namely the auteur’s filming the characters in real time, sometimes across decades, as well as the use of perambulatory dialog in place of action or plot (Linklater's personal signature). Before Midnight follows the development of the protagonists nine years after the previous sequel, and nothing in particular happens in the film. Instead, we are told by the characters about past significant events in monologues, discussions, or arguments. In addition, the common idea in the two films are the feminist views of the protagonists, expressed in different contexts of racial experience in the former, and motherhood in the latter. Both protagonists from Strouse’s and Linklater’s films are strong leading characters who do not suffer the mandatory punishment for failing to follow gender roles advertised by Hollywood. Thus, the physical or emotional abuse that routinely accompanies strong female characters that veer from their traditional roles in mainstream narratives is lacking in Strouse’s and Linklater’s films. Furthermore, the films are created by male directors who express solid feminist points of view – a practice predominately carried out by female directors. For example, Tanya Wright’s Butterflies Rising (2010) features an interracial female friendship, and the characters’ connection rests on their shared trouble with the law and discrimination. Female directors who feature intersectional feminist ideas include Neema Barnette (Civil Brand, 2002), Dee Rees (Pariah, 2011), Victoria Mahoney (Yelling to the Sky, 2011), and Kelly Reichardt (Certain Women, 2016). These filmmakers often convey their ideas through exploring non-traditional, homosexual relationships. Some of their work features violence, and especially violence by and against women as in Mahoney’s film, as well as brutal institutional abuse in racial incarceration in women’s prison in Barnette’s film.

By comparison, The Incredible Jessica James and Before Midnight exclude violence while presenting feminist ideas in heterosexual interracial or international relationships. The works of Strouse and Linklater demonstrate that feminist ideas could transcend the author’s gender or race among other aspects of intersectional feminism. I believe that art crossing the boundaries of gender, race, and nationality with compassion is the prerequisite of a more tolerant society. Furthermore, the representation of race in Strouse’s film is significant because it is shown in various interracial relationships that exclude prejudice towards minorities. Both films promote and normalize racial and gender equality in the displayed relationships, because they are harmonious and egalitarian as the characters form interracial or international interfaces.

The black protagonist from Strouse’s indie The Incredible Jessica James, Jessica (Jessica Williams) is sexually assertive and freely chooses the men she dates. More significantly, her focus in life is her passion for theatre, and she makes her priorities clear. Jessica has many other dimensions including her being an aspiring playwright, teaching minors in children’s theatre, and visiting her family in her hometown in Ohio. Most of the film follows Jessica’s creative work and her personal relationships with boyfriends and friends. The end of the movie is optimistic, as Jessica’s date Boone (Chris O’Dawd) who is Caucasian, graciously uses his own sky miles to treat Jessica and her two female friends to plane tickets to London to attend the performance of Jessica’s play. Prioritizing friendship over intimate relationship is a feminist tenet often missing in mainstream cinema. While male bonding is shown traditionally even among rivals, female connections with friends are portrayed as weak and easily disrupted by succumbing to rivalry and prioritizing sexual relationships with males. The contemporary story of modern girl Jessica in Strouse’s film does not perpetuate patriarchal gender roles; she is single, passionate about theatre and writing, and has a rich personal and professional life.

Critical response to the film is mixed. For example, film critics Geoff Berkshire, Kate Erbland, and Todd McCarthy (among others) underplay Strouse’s writing and directing a film that represents women and relationships in an unorthodox way, and they are reluctant to give him credit for a genuine story. Instead, they grant acclaim to the star, Jessica Williams, for any successful outcome. More specifically, Berkshire asserts that the film is in line with Strouse’s previous “low-key characters movies,” and “never takes a full plunge.”[1] According to Kate Erbland, Strouse utilizes “quirky humor” and is not afraid to use big problems in order to “earn both its laughs and relatability.”[2] However, Erbland argues it is Jessica Williams “who pushes the material to a higher register,” therefore the critic concludes her article with a suggestion to rename the film “The Incredible Jessica Williams.”[3] Similarly, Todd McCarthy from The Hollywood Reporter, insists that all the glory goes to Williams as he tells us that Strouse’s film “cannot be mistaken for anything other than Williams’ calling-card movie, and she lays her abilities out there for all to see: high energy, eruptive humor, vaunting ambition, considerable ego, a nimble mood gearshift box, and an endless belief in herself.”[4] Understandably, the enthusiasm accompanying the stardom of Strouse’s film reflects the importance of its financial success. Berkshire, Erbland, and McCarthy address an audience interested in the commercial potential of the film, and so they focus on the potential profit brought by the star, Jessica Williams.

Admittedly, in Strouse’s own words, his initial idea was to give the former reporter of The Daily Show, Jessica Williams, a chance to debut as a star in his film.[5] Although, without a doubt, Williams creates a charming and compelling character, I believe that the message of the film goes beyond its own star’s potential. Strouse’s decision to feature a complicated female character as a protagonist and to include diverse representatives of race, gender, and class is a powerful counterculture statement. The protagonist of the film is equally invested in her own writing as well as in encouraging children to pursue their acting and writing passions. Furthermore, the director’s original idea to execute an experiment of complete honesty between Jessica and her new date Boone proves successful, because the result is no more disappointing than any outcome produced by deceitful interactions. The idea of substituting the falsehood of artificial politeness with transparency is based on the only common interest between Jessica and Boone – truthfulness. Thus, their shared concern facilitates the connection of the couple and moves their communication to a higher level. Contrary to the popular belief that the civilized world will fall apart if we are more open with each other, in the film narrative honesty is more productive and functional than falsehood, at least among benevolent people or intimate partners. Therefore, the success of this tactic in the film is secured through maintaining benign intentions, not using sincerity as an excuse to assault or hurt people.

Critic Graham Winfrey emphasizes the fact that Netflix bought the rights to disseminate the film and that the network representatives are equally honored to work with director Strouse and star Williams.[6] Similarly, film critic Alex Billington appreciates the optimism of the script, and ranks the film Strouse’s best to date. Besides defining the story as “light, amusing, and charming” and “based on real situations,” Billington adds that “the film is full of so much life, and passion, and love and, most importantly, optimism.” Billington continues, “In these troubling, tumultuous times, where depression and frustration are so prevalent, a little bit of refreshing optimism goes a long way.” In support of Billington’s comment, I would add that Strouse’s optimism appears contrary to Hollywood’s production of fabricated myths such as rising to the top with hard work, or living the American dream, or class mobility (among others). Instead, the film signifies everyday aspects of personal relationships that could be improved, or ways to apply principles of equality, compassion and honesty without the illusion of transcending racial or gender bias on a larger, non-personal scale.[7]

In terms of pragmatism, the protagonist maintains a practical balance between realism and optimism – she keeps her daily jobs along with her artistic motivation as a response to her numerous rejections as a playwright. Jessica reacts with creativity and dignity to the rejections, and continues to work while pursuing professional writing. We see Jessica making a ritual of assembling her letters of rejection in an artistic collage on her wall. In this way, she not only uses humor to elevate her spirits, but also demonstrates that she is not ashamed of these rejections. To the contrary, she is proud of her hard work and displays the letters as a map of her history of aspiration and indicators of the stages of her personal development. Even Jessica’s distinguishing between more encouraging personalized rejections and standardized trivial answers implies resilience and hope. As Williams stresses in an interview, one of the main messages of the film is that rejections are not a measure for someone’s worth.[8] 

 

More importantly, towards the end Jessica receives a letter from Donmar Theatre in London with an invitation to direct the performance of her play. Although a flattering accomplishment, this offer does not translate into a job, or a lucrative offer that pays her plane ticket. Nevertheless, it is a feather in her hat as it has prestigious potential. Thus, the film does not reflect Hollywood’s fantasy of “making it to the top.” The film reflects real life struggles without imposing exploitative propaganda, and remains realistic without being hopeless or pessimistic. Just as in real life regular people rarely get adequate reward for their hard work, but instead often get patted on the back, Jessica gets her mostly symbolic, intangible prize. Most importantly, unlike most female characters in Hollywood, Jessica does not get punished for her exuberant sexuality, or for having frequent boyfriends. More triumphant yet from a feminist perspective is the fact that there is no violence against women in the film, neither sexual nor non-sexual. There is no sexist language or behavior, and there is no male dominance in a physical or symbolic way. Consequently, the film is categorically progressive and is not ideologically subversive regarding female rights or choices, and differs from the racial and gender stereotypes spread through Hollywood.

A major idea is the film’s presentation of positive interracial relationships and its diverse cast – Jessica’s best friend Tasha is a white girl played by Noel Wills, and Jessica’s current date is a white man. Moreover, most of the characters are black – the kids Jessica teaches, her former boyfriend, Damon, played by Lakeith Stanfield, Jessica’s family in Ohio, and the prominent star, Tony-award winner Sarah Jones, played by the real Sarah Jones. This is unusual practice for a white director, and for films featuring artistic types in New York City. There are also characters who are Latino, Native American, and Asian. In this way, Strouse presents a realistic ratio of racially diverse characters in a cosmopolitan city such as New York, which is revolutionary given the predominately white protagonists cast in urban romantic comedies. This is a very unorthodox approach currently not popular in Hollywood, especially for a white male director, and it is all the more progressive for featuring a female black protagonist instead of white male protagonist, as well as not succumbing to stereotypical or sensational representation of female and black characters. The role of star Sarah Jones is inspirational, and she is included to motivate disadvantaged children from the theatrical school (in particular one who is reluctant to go on a field trip to meet Sarah Jones).

The schoolchildren that Jessica teaches also play an important role in the film. Jessica spends additional time beyond her paid hours to follow up on the progress of the kids. For example, when an opportunity arrives to have a workshop with Sarah Jones for a writing weekend, Jessica is concerned about a girl who cannot attend for family reasons. Jessica goes to her home to speak with her mother, and takes the initiative to make a phone call to the divorced father to persuade him to let the child go to the field trip. Jessica’s passion for theatre and her dedication to her work in children’s theatre is a trend either not practiced in mainstream movies, or usually associated with a character  who is either miserable or pathetically grotesque when it is. Career women and women who prioritize their work over traditional roles are often stigmatized, punished, or end up tragically ruining their lives in classic Hollywood narratives. Thus, the liberated, independent, overtly exuberant, and complicated Jessica is a breath of fresh air to the audience. Strouse’s emphasis on openness and honesty as qualities not comic or tragic, but healthy and functional instead, brings positive change to the film industry.

At the same time, the confrontation in the film comes not from crossing racial or gender boundaries, but between Jessica and her conservative, patriarchal family. As she attends her little sister’s baby shower, Jessica feels the antagonism between her values and those of her family. Although Jessica is only twenty-five, she is openly pitied for not being married. In contrast, her younger sister, who is already married and expecting a child, is the pride of the family because she is fulfilling the role proscribed for women by patriarchal norms. With her characteristically humorous approach, Jessica gives the baby a feminist drawing book, joking that it is never too early to start a proper education. Jessica’s joke falls on deaf ears as the women at the baby shower are in denial about the female denigration underlined by Jessica. After pointing out that one of the women just pretended to eat “poop” from a cake designed as a baby diaper, Jessica gives up the topic. Thus, the schism in the film is not based on race or gender, but rather on educational and progressive consciousness gaps. More important, traditional values and gender roles are presented as awkward, retrograde, and pitiful, instead of being glorified and sold as the only option for women routinely practiced by Hollywood.

The issue of class also appears naturally in the film, which is notable given that it is a theme that is unofficially forbidden in mainstream cinema. One of the first questions Jessica is asked by Boone  during their blind date is how she pays her rent in Manhattan. It is a curious fact that among the thousands of Hollywood films and TV sitcoms about New York City, the issue of unaffordable housing is never brought up, despite the statistics showing that the city has one of the highest real estate rates in the world. In reality, this fact causes the city to lack a middle class defined by the standards for the rest of the country, which is conveniently omitted from mainstream films. For example, in Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (1986), recently revived as a TV series on Netflix, everyone is carefree about residence in the city. In light of the most recent budget cuts in public housing reminiscent of the 1980s, the silence about it in urban plots is a disturbing act of sugarcoated censorship. In contrast with Lee’s protagonist Nola Darling from the 1980s, who barely works in the film, Jessica holds two jobs besides her playwright career, which has not yet materialized into payed work. Jessica’s constant struggle to obtain funding and grants is well documented on her ironic wall of fame where she collects the rejection letters. Thus, Strouse’s film deviates from the Hollywood’s pretend luxurious life style led by characters who have more leisure time and money than financial problems.

Additionally, Strouse’s film explores alternatives to heterosexual life styles by showing homosexual, transgender, and single relationships in lieu of traditional marriages. For example, the protagonist’s friend Tasha is practicing unorthodox sexuality including homosexuality and masturbation – forms traditionally preserved for male characters in predominantly orthodox patriarchal settings. In addition, the film touches upon two contemporary social issues – lack of human communication and the controversial role of technology in the process. Boone, Jessica’s date, is a software developer who invented an app for artificial communication among friends and family members. Boone’s app tracks down character traits of individuals including voices, styles of speech, tastes, and inclinations based on their digital communications. The app then generates messages that sound authentic and are sent weekly to peoples’ families and friends. In this way, communication is completely avoided, and the demand for the app reflects one of the most serious problems in the digital age – social dysfunction caused by lack of human interaction. As Jessica reacts negatively to the idea of artificial communication and calls it “trash,” she, nevertheless, congratulates Boone for his professional success. Juxtaposing genuinely open relationships based on truth with an artificial electronic substitute is an ongoing polemic among scientists and social networks that reflects the growing concern about artificial intelligence. However, the commercial success of Boone’s app is a sign of social dysfunction and the audience can see its criticism expressed by Jessica’s personal dislike of the invention.

At the same time, Jessica regards her writing as sacred soul searching that can only be shared with trustworthy close friends. Early in her relationship with Boone, she refuses to let him read any of her plays; however, later she gives him her entire collection in a ritualistic gesture. Because Boone is sincere in his curiosity about Jessica’s writing as he is trying to get to know her on deeper emotional and intellectual levels, Boone eagerly reads the entire folder. His reaction to Jessica’s plays is simply to admit that she is a very complicated human being, which she rightly takes as a compliment. One of the high qualities of Strouse’s film is his convincing portrayal of his female characters, and especially the protagonist as complicated, conflicted humans. More importantly, the female characters are treated as such by their male counterparts, more specifically by the male protagonist Boone. Similarly, Jessica’s former boyfriend, Damon, is depicted in flashbacks as her best friend who lovingly and sincerely encourages her in her writing aspirations. Therefore, Strouse succeeds in portraying something rarely seen in mainstream films, namely, the acknowledgement of the humanity of the female characters.

In terms of aesthetic style, the opening scene features a solo dancing number by Williams that satisfies even most fastidious criteria for artistic expression. In addition, Strouse uses interruptive scenes of imaginary encounters between Jessica and her former boyfriend Damon throughout the film, in which Jessica fancies various alternative closures that help her get over her failed relationship. Furthermore, the film contains many humorous moments that qualify the work for a comedy, although the genre does not undermine the film’s serious feminist ideas. In Williams’s words, the message of The Incredible Jessica James is that a woman does not need an intimate relationship to achieve purpose in life, and rejection is not a measure of one’s worth.[9] Both messages are brave and contradict mainstream patriarchal culture. For these and other reasons identified in the analysis, The Incredible Jessica James is a refreshing, original film that promotes egalitarian interracial relationships and feminist principles as it represents black characters in their complexity and aspirations.

Similarly, Richard Linklater’s 2013’s Before Midnight features an egalitarian heterosexual relationship, which is international instead of interracial, with a strong emphasis on the female protagonist’s feminist views. The film is the third sequence of Linklater’s Before trilogy, and it is a distinctive example of cinematic representation of women in their struggles in patriarchal societies – in this case, featuring motherhood in an unmarried international couple. Although very different from Strouse’s techniques of depicting urban multiracial interactions, the film is distinguished by deep philosophical and social ideas of gender equality, environmental concerns, the survival of humans and all species, and parenthood and mortality -- all themes explored by the female protagonist in discussions with other characters. What is unique about this film is the democratic approach implemented by Linklater in co-writing the script with the two main actors, Julie Delpy, playing Celine, and Ethan Hawke, playing Jesse. More important, Linklater explains during a talk at the debut of the film that he perceives the process of creating the dialog and all verbal communications as the work of three equally important writers.[10] At the same event, actor Hawke asserts that the aim of the film is to be as genderless as possible, and to express both feminine and masculine perspectives, which include his own feminine side and actress Delpy’s masculine side.[11] The director confirms their efforts to expose the tension between the sexes without succumbing to either a feminine or masculine agenda. Given the wide-spread violent and toxic masculine point of view dominating the market, this balanced approach provides a platform for female voices instead of suppressing them. Consequently, egalitarian feminist concepts are brought up frequently, and take place verbally and visually throughout the narrative.

 

In contrast with Strouse’s film where the protagonist is a single black woman, the female heroine from Linklater’s film is a French white woman in a committed relationship with the American father of her children. Nevertheless, Before Midnight shares common progressive ideas with The Incredible Jessica James, because feminist criticism of the sacrificial and exploitative roles assigned to women in a patriarchal society is well articulated and illustrated throughout the two movies. More importantly, both main female characters are positive role models with relatively stable and fulfilling lives -- and without happy endings or tragic martyrdom. Instead, a healthy balance between problems and self-actualization is achieved. The protagonist, Celine, is an outspoken person who is concerned with issues of gender, civil rights, imperialist politics, and the environment, in addition to her role as a mother and romantic partner. She is sexually assertive, frank about former boyfriends, and critical about machoism in her relationship, or society as a whole. Moreover, Celine is viewed and appreciated by her partner, Jesse, as an intelligent, socially engaged, creative and artistic person. The couple is not married, a fact symbolic of their rejection of traditional values; however, they are raising  their seven years old twin daughters together in Paris. The idea that an American writer follows his female partner to her native country, France, and not the opposite way indicates a reversal of traditional gender roles. However, this arrangement is challenged throughout the film – mostly  by Celine in her suspicion that she would be asked to sacrifice her career and extended family and move to the USA.

Although the film implies that Celine and Jesse are each other’s exceptional love, Linklater does not mystify or romanticize their relationship. To the contrary, he shows the couple constantly analyzing their relationship and challenging each other. Thus, Linklater deviates from the overrated type “love conquers all” myth and cheap sensationalism promoted by Hollywood. As the director explains in more than one interview, and as articulated by Jesse in a book signing scene, the goal is to demonstrate the thorough connection between two human beings on intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and physical levels.[12] Linklater’s enunciated intention to capture the moment of this genuine connection, and to expose the problems associated with following someone’s passion, conveys the message of his film. He believes that such a way of life is very dramatic and significant, worth of being followed in the course of eighteen years.[13] Over the course of the three films that make up the Before trilogy, Jesse and Celine meet by chance in a train in Europe when they are both twenty-three, they fall in love, spend a night in Vienna, lose each other, meet again in Paris, and finally are reunited after nine years. Their life together is complicated by Jesse’s messy divorce and his residing across the ocean away from his son and former wife, who would not share custody with him. The opening scene of Before Midnight shows Jesse seeing his thirteen years old son board a plane to go back home to the United States after spending the summer vacation with his father and his new family in Greece. The film is shot in the Peloponnese with the cast entirely selected from Greek professionals, including Academy Award winning cinematographer Walter Lassally, acting as a writer and host in the film. By purposely hiring local actors, Linklater aims to make the communication authentic with exposing genuine Greek accents and culture, while emphasizing the international relations between the characters.     

Although nothing in particular happens in the film, the emphasis is on the couple’s problems in their relationship. As Linklater explains, people tend to be preoccupied with the negative aspects of their lives and he pursues that tendency.[14] A major problem between Jesse and Celine is precisely crossing national borders, given that Jesse’s inability to participate in his son’s life in Chicago is caused by his new family’s location in Paris. Appropriately, Linklater displays this dilemma by bringing up feminist values. Celine feels constant pressure to move back to the States for Jesse’s sake. However, she resists the guilt and tries to stand her ground. After Celine receives an offer for a government job in Paris that deals with environmental issues, the conflict erupts. Later in the film, Celine and Jesse have a long, passionate argument that leads to a break up. Although Jesse follows Celine to the beach and tries to reconcile, the end remains open. As always, Linklater’s finale is ambiguous and left to the viewer’s imagination.

Emphasized among the problems between the protagonists is the disproportionate load of domestic work and parenting left to Celine, and her inability to pursue her career the way Jesse does. We are told by the protagonist that while Jesse is writing, traveling on book tours, or attending social promotional events, Celine tends the kids at home. As scholar Martha N. Beck states in her book Breaking Point, young unmarried women have the status of privileged white males, because they are not yet officially unpaid caregivers and servants.[15] Confirming this theory, Celine becomes confined to domesticity after having her children. Even during their vacation in Greece, where Jesse is invited by a writer for literary discussions with a selected company, the domestic work is done exclusively by the women, while the men are engaged in intellectual conversations. This division in traditional gender roles is brought up by Celine in a subsequent argument with Jesse in their hotel suite. Because of the way gender roles are institutionalized, even with the support of her partner,  Celine still is unable to avoid the double bind paradox of maternity that excludes women from the work force, but does not excuse them from working. Created by patriarchy and still persisting in modern societies, this paradox is articulated by Laura Mulvey in her film The Riddles of the Sphinx (1977): “Society wants women to work, but do not facilitate them and often punishes them for leaving their proper place.”[16] Ironically, after decades of collective struggles, Celine is facing the same dilemma of either accepting her dream job, or sacrificing it for the sake of her family. Although Mulvey and other feminists diagnosed the problem more than 50 years ago, Linklater’s film demonstrates that very little had changed since then regarding motherhood in western societies. The classical paradox described by Mulvey back in the 1970s is still very real for mothers in contemporary patriarchies in the twenty-first century.

Beside the couple’s confrontation in the hotel suite, feminist issues are discussed frequently in the film and predominately expressed by Celine. One such example occurs in a scene in the midst of beautiful scenery in Messenia, a southern Greek peninsula. Linklater often uses his personal signature style, perambulatory dialog, to advance the narrative. In this way, most of the events and actions are told by the protagonists. As Jesse and Celine walk down a spectacular path, they reflect on their current age, 41, and their lost youth. While they discuss how their priorities have changed with age, and especially with parenthood, feminism comes naturally in the conversation. Celine speaks from the depth of her experience as a professional woman and a mother: “Most women who achieved anything in life . . . the first time you hear about them, they are in their 50s, because it is so hard to get any recognition before that. They struggle for 30 years, or they raise kids and are stranded at home before they can finally do what they want." These lines are loaded with centuries of women’s history of omission, and the twenty-first century is hardly different from the past. Although in theory Celine has Jesse’s sympathetic ear regarding the topic of female oppression, and in some areas he tries to break down the pattern of gender roles, the occasional support of the individual is still not enough for Celine or any other intelligent, ambitious woman to achieve anything before her fifties.

Furthermore, Celine adds that men think of their lives in relation to signposts and compare themselves to other great men, whereas this mentality does not apply to women. She concludes that, “Actually, it is freeing. We don’t have to spend our lives comparing ourselves to Martin Luther King, or Gandhi, or Tolstoy.” Celine implies here that women are invisible in history, and there are no symbolic pillars for women to use for comparison and inspiration. Jesse’s response reflects a very simple litmus test for the invisibility of women, because the only example of a female role model he can offer is Joan of Arc. Even Jesse, an intelligent writer and college instructor, cannot name any female role models from history other than a religious martyr. Celine rejects this example on the premise that she is not inspired by a nineteen-year-old virgin who was burnt alive. There is no shortage of inspirational women in history; however, they are largely overlooked, underestimated, or erased from the narratives in patriarchal societies where women are perceived as threatening to the status quo. The absence of heroic female role models besides religious martyrdom or sacrificial motherhood could be explained with the deep-seated omission and discrediting women from history in patriarchal culture. Through Celine’s criticism of the trivial role model indicated by Jesse, the film brings up the important issue of omitting female leadership from the public record. This absence makes cinematic female characters such as Jessica James and Celine attractive and necessary deviations from the limited choices of either traditional roles or victims of violence that result from women’s refusal to play them. Bringing awareness to the issue of women’s invisibility is an important contribution of the film. The inclusion of various feminist ideas in Before Midnight signals the development of the protagonists’ consciousness; more specifically, following the changes resulting from Celine’s altered social status as a mother. Celine, like other of Linklater’s female characters, is engaged in a wide spectrum of social issues. However, the emphasis on feminism appears more strongly in this film because motherhood is involved. Celine’s unhappiness with her disproportionate workload in parenthood is in stark contrast with the glorified image of marriage and motherhood in mainstream films. Adhering to patriarchal stereotypes, mainstream films only allow unhappy representatives of motherhood to appear as single unwedded or divorced mothers.  

According to critic Ryan Gilbey, it is unrealistic for Jesse and Celine to have so much to say to each other after being together for nine years, and he suggests in his discussion of the film that “relaxed or rueful silence” would be more plausible for the couple.[17] However, Linklater’s deliberate point is to portrait a couple deeply connected on many levels, and still passionately engaged in topics other than their relationship, so that they are easily involved in reciprocal verbal communication. After all, reflective dialogues is the couple’s personal trait initiated the day they met eighteen years ago. It is a trait that makes them different than the average dysfunctional couple. Without idealizing them, Linklater reveals the beautiful and the hostile moments between them, the fights, the break up, the following reconciliation, and the occasional annoyance with each other. Precisely because they are invested in the world around them and care about issues beyond their relationship, namely the environment, social policies, and metaphysical questions, Jesse and Celine are connected on a deeper level than the one on which their inevitable problems exist.

Although the couple seems to live a harmonious life and to have a healthy relationship, Celine still feels the pressure to sacrifice her career and to move back to the United States with Jesse. As an environmental activist, Celine has been working for years for non-profit organizations on projects involving clean energy and implementing wind mills and solar panels. Now she is debating whether to accept a government job doing the same work. While Celine voices her concerns, Jesse is unsupportive and even opposed to her decision to accept the job based on his distrust of the government. His negative position is brought up later during the couple’s fight. Another issue for the couple is Celine’s lack of time for music. She plays the guitar and composes songs, a passion she also had to sacrifice after the birth of her children. Celine’s multiple dimensions depicted in the film and her staunch determination to maintain her interests is one of the film’s leitmotifs and important reinforcement of non-stereotypical representation of women.  

In addition, Jesse, who becomes famous after writing a book about the couple’s one night in Vienna, continues to write lucrative fictional novels. Celine opposes his use of her personage, because he does it without consulting her and she feels misrepresented. Amazingly, what scholar Laura Mulvey determines decades earlier applies to the case of Jesse’s writing. In Mulvey’s words, “Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.”[18] Accordingly, Celine criticizes Jesse for writing novels about his own fantasies and for leaving her out as a voice, which causes people to mis-recognize her from Jesse’s point of view. Jesse is doing what male writers have done for centuries – projecting their own sexual fantasies on silent female objects, without female consultation or consent, for the enjoyment of male audiences.[19] Thus, when Celine rejects this silent role and forbids Jesse to use her or their daughters as characters in his books, her reaction antagonizes him. The resemblance with Mulvey’s classical definition is stunning despite the time lapse between the statements, and the geographical and ethnic variances. Even more disappointing is the fact that the objectification and silencing of Celine is done by Jesse, a seemingly progressive and open-minded person.

According to critic Aaron Cutler, Celine “presents herself alternately as a proud feminist and as a vulnerable girl who wants nothing more than a man to hold her.”[20] Indeed, Celine demonstrates this shift several times, only to prove that men prefer gender manipulation over an open conversation. In one scene, she pretends to be a simplistic, ignorant female fan of Jesse’s writing who flirts with him and appears to be smitten by his intelligence, although she admits that she does not read books. Celine performs her comedian act at the dinner table in front of a diverse company of friends. Surprisingly, Jesse accepts the game, and announces that he feels irresistible attraction to “this woman.” Celine makes her case by announcing that Jesse is a “closet macho” who likes “bimbos.”

Ironically, the final scene of reconciliation between the two resembles the bimbo game, except Jesse is the one who tries to flirt with Celine and invents “a time machine” to let her know that he comes from the future where Celine is in her eighties, still in a relationship with Jesse and looking good. The final reconciliation confirms Celine’s theory about Jesse’s secret machoism that forces her into the role of a bimbo.

In comparison with the film’s simpler male character, the female protagonist is an exceptionally intelligent, open-minded individual with a wide range of artistic, social and intellectual pursuits. Linklater is always fascinated with women’s minds and he creates heroines as either intellectually equal or superior to their male counterparts. For this film, he grants screenwriter and actress Delpy the liberty to express her views and credits her with the progressive feminist ideas in the script. Similarly, Linklater’s own description of his female co-writer for the first film of the trilogy, Kim Krizan, resembles Celine’s character. According to Linklater, he“loved the way her mind worked – a constant stream of confident and intelligent ideas.”[21] Linklater’s portrayal of Celine as a cerebral, complicated character in comparison with a more simplistic and even primitive Jesse is radical and revolutionary in the film.

Moreover, according to the script, Jesse perceives Celine’s alleged infidelity in the film as a sign of her complicated relations with men. For example, when he implies that Celine had a fling with either Lech Walesa or Vaclav Havel during her professional trip to Eastern Europe, Celine denies it and corrects Jesse that he means Gorbachev, and taunts him for being a “donut-loving, football obsessed, geographically challenged American.” In a different scene, during their long argument in Messenia, when Celine accuses Jesse of being unfaithful on a book tour, he responds with a counter accusation that she “blew” a former boyfriend while attending a funeral. Nevertheless, Jesse assures Celine that he accepts her infidelity, because “she is a complicated human being.” These repeated reactions from Jesse are in a sharp contradiction with the dominant male protagonists who treat infidelity as a devastating blow to their masculine egos because they believe they possess the objects of their love. According to this stereotype, the female protagonist is a commodity and infidelity devalues her and renders her unworthy of pursuit. By comparison, both male protagonists in Linklater’s and Strouse’s films emphasize the complex nature of their female partners and describe them as complicated human beings.

   

Thus, Linklater’s portrayal of a female protagonist in her complexity and contradictory desires conveys a positive message. Although the film’s theme is still love and the fate of the couple’s complicated relationship, the domination of the issues of women’s rights and struggles in the discussions is unambiguous. The prevalence of feminist themes in the conversations between Jesse and Celine despite their oscillation between intellectual equals and macho/bimbo roles is indicative of the fragility of egalitarian heterosexual relationships. While Celine can never win a sincere argument with Jesse, she is left with the option of playing the bimbo role in order to sustain the sexual attraction in their relationship. Thus, the film exposes a common dilemma in many heterosexual relationships that reflects gender inequality and sexism in patriarchal societies. Moreover, in an intimate scene interrupted by a phone call, Celine embodies the only nudity in the film, as she remains topless long after the intimacy is over. The imbalance in visual display of the female body could be construed as an example of Mulvey’s classical theory about the male gaze, or objectification of women for the pleasure of looking at them. Thus, the scene suggests that even a democratic director with egalitarian views could succumb to sexism in his uneven exposure of nudity. To Linklater’s credit, the rest of the film is sufficiently balanced, and the female protagonist demonstrates depth in all her multi-dimensional characteristics. Along with promoting feminist principles demonstrated throughout his work, Linklater’s greatest strength is in his opposition to violence in his filmmaking. The director maintains violence-free scripts in his work, and promotes pacifist values. However, a weakness Linklater displays as well is his delay to cross boundaries of race and sexual orientation. Given his inclusion of multiple European nationalities from Austria, France, Greece, and Eastern Europe, the international relationship between an American man and a French woman, it could be surmised that in time he could change his Euro-centric personage to a more inclusive scope of characters.

Ultimately, then, while the two independent films by Strouse and Linklater are created in twenty-first century, their merit is rooted not in depicting modern reality, but in their progressive statements from anti-violence to transcending racial and national limitations to the inclusion of gender and class issues. In this age of omnipresent violence against women especially prevalent in Hollywood cinema, the counterculture presented in The Incredible Jessica James and Before Midnight plays an important role in promoting anti-violence, gender equality, and interracial or international relations. By criticizing sexism, racism, and classism (among other discriminatory practices) and offering alternative egalitarian interactions, the two films promote complicated, attractive, strong. female role models. Although rare and commercially marginal, these filmmakers’ voices are firmly supported by human rights activists, and a small minority of the public are nevertheless slowly making progress. While there are many female directors who portray women according to intersectional feminist views, male directors offering the same ideas are fewer. For that and other reasons discussed earlier, Strouse’s and Linklater’s films warrant analysis. By contrast, overly celebrated mainstream film directors, such as Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, the Coen brothers, and even Spike Lee, work against this progressive movement by promoting sexism and violence against women. Sometimes disguised as avant-garde, as in the case of Lee’s films, the majority of popular films misrepresent women, and thus perpetuate women’s objectification and exploitation.

For years, we have been told by the media that violence is what the audience wants. For years, the media have been pushing the usual violent, exploitative, chauvinistic type of films under the pretense that there is a demand for them. In reality, the public is persistently trained to expect violence and sexism every time it goes to the movies. In response to over a century of Hollywood’s films showing the denigration and marginalization of women, the endemic proportions of sexual harassment revealed in recent years are indicative of the influence of mass media on society. Since the audience has watched rape, murder, sexual objectification, male stares, silencing, and undressing women in films for many decades. We have been conditioned to identify this abuse as normality.

In contrast, the works of Strouse and Linklater portray dignified women free of violence that counter the mainstream discourse in two different ways. While The Incredible Jessica James represents women in their racial and class diversity, Before Midnight is focused on a white middle class mother with progressive feminist and environmental views. However, both directors depict female characters in original, unbiased ways. Through selective funding, patriarchal ideology promotes the works of directors who support chauvinistic culture and undermines the works of progressive directors such as Strouse and Linklater. Regardless of the financial outcome, The Incredible Jessica James and Before Midnight remain valuable independent works of art that offer alternative, complicated, and confident images of women in interracial and international egalitarian heterosexual relationships. Because the two films demonstrate that male directors could promote feminist ideas, they show that gender boundaries could be transcended in favor of universal human rights. Any conscious and intelligent author could promote social justice regardless of his or her gender, and Strouse and Linklater prove convincingly that egalitarian feminist ideas are genderless. Furthermore, they demonstrate that films could avoid sensational effects such as extreme violence either sexual or otherwise. Film directors such as Strouse and Linklater contribute to the creation of a counterculture, where forms of abuse are not normalized, commercialized, or sold as entertainment. Undoubtedly, films such as The Incredible Jessica James and Before Midnight offer the needed antidote to a poisonous patriarchal culture and a promising trend opposing a long-obsolete tradition in Hollywood.    

Notes

[1] Geoff Berkshire, “Sundance Film Review: The Incredible Jessica James,” Variety (Jan 20, 2017): https://variety.com/2017/film/reviews/the-incredible-jessica-james-review-sundance-jessica-williams-1201964820/

 

[2] Kate Erbland, “The Incredible Jessica James Review: Jessica Williams Makes a Bid for Movie Stardom – Sundance 2017,” IndieWire (Jan 20, 2017):  https://www.indiewire.com/2017/01/the-incredible-jessica-james-review-jessica-williams-sundance-1201770927/

[3] Kate Erbland, “The Incredible Jessica James Review: Jessica Williams Makes a Bid for Movie Stardom – Sundance 2017,” IndieWire  (Jan 20, 2017):  https://www.indiewire.com/2017/01/the-incredible-jessica-james-review-jessica-williams-sundance-1201770927/

[4] Todd McCarthy, “Jim Strouse’s Film Is Built Around the Charms of Leading Lady Jessica Williams (of The Daily Show) as a Young Playwright Navigating a New Romance,” The Hollywood Reporter (January 20, 2017): 

 https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/incredible-jessica-james-review-966563

[5] Jim Strouse, dir., Q&A after the  screening of The Incredible Jessica James, Sundance Film Festival 2017, Grand Theatre, SLC, January 29, 2017.

[6] Winfrey, G. “Netflix Acquires The Incredible Jessica Williams – Sundance 2017.” Indie Wire (January 23, 2017): https://www.indiewire.com/2017/01/netflix-the-incredible-jessica-james-sundance-film-acquisition-1201772599/

[7] Alex Billington, “Sundance 2017: The Incredible Jessica James Is Light, Optimistic Fun,” Connecting Hollywood with its Audience. FirstShowing.net (Jan 28, 2017):  https://www.indiewire.com/2017/01/the-incredible-jessica-james-review-jessica-williams-sundance-1201770927/

 

[8] The Associated Press. "Jessica Williams on rejection: 'Just wallow in the dark,'" YouTube (August 2, 2017): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-qSIeIkSv5E

[9] The Associated Press. "Jessica Williams on rejection: 'Just wallow in the dark,'" YouTube (August 2, 2017): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-qSIeIkSv5E

[10]  “Summer Talks: Before Midnight,” Film Society of Lincoln Center, Interview with Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and July Delpy, YouTube (June 6, 2013): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLdeVf3rfCk&t=1826s

[11] “Summer Talks: Before Midnight,” Film Society of Lincoln Center, Interview with Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and July Delpy, YouTube (June 6, 2013): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLdeVf3rfCk&t=1826s

[12] “Summer Talks: Before Midnight,” Film Society of Lincoln Center, Interview with Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and July Delpy, YouTube (June 6, 2013): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLdeVf3rfCk&t=1826s

[13]“Summer Talks: Before Midnight,” Film Society of Lincoln Center, Interview with Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and July Delpy, YouTube (June 6, 2013): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLdeVf3rfCk&t=1826s

[14] “Summer Talks: Before Midnight,” Film Society of Lincoln Center, Interview with Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and July Delpy, YouTube (June 6, 2013): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLdeVf3rfCk&t=1826s

[16] Martha N. Beck, Breaking Point: Why Women Fall Apart and How They Can Re-create Their Lives (New York: Random House, 1997),  81.

[17] Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, dirs., The Riddles of the Sphinx, dist. BFI, 1977.

[18] Ryan Gilbey, “Every Time We Say Goodbye: Richard Linklater’s Remarkable 20-year, Three Film Journey, From Sunrise to Midnight,” New Statesman. 142.5162. (June 14, 2013), 48.

[19] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen, 163.3, Autumn 1975, 6-18. http://www.jahsonic.com/VPNC.html

[20] Aaron Cutler, “Love in Time: Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, and Richard Linklater’s Before Films.” Cineaste, Vol. 38, No. 4 (Fall 21013), 24.

[21] Rob Stone, The Cinema of Richard Linklater: Walk, Don’t Run, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 55. 

Bibliography

 

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2017): https://variety.com/2017/film/reviews/the-incredible-jessica-james-review-sundance-jessica-williams-1201964820/

 

Beck, Martha N. Breaking Point: Why Women Fall Apart and How They Can Re-create Their Lives. New York: Random.House, 1997.

 

Billington, Alex. “Sundance 2017: The Incredible Jessica James Is Light, Optimistic Fun,”FirstShowing.net (Jan 28, 2017):

http://www.firstshowing.net/2017/sundance-2017-the-incredible-jessica-james-is-light-optimistic-fun/

 

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Erbland, Kate. “The Incredible Jessica James Review: Jessica Williams Makes a Bid for MovieStardom – Sundance 2017,” IndieWire (Jan 20, 2017): https://www.indiewire.com/2017/01/the-incredible-jessica-james-review-jessica-williams-sundance-1201770927/

 

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Linklater, Richard.  “Introduction,” in Before Sunrise, eds. Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan. New York: Saint Martin’s Griffin Press, 1995.

 

McCarthy, Todd. “Jim Strouse’s Film Is Built Around the Charms of Leading Lady Jessica Williams (of The Daily Show) as a Young Playwright Navigating a New Romance,” The Hollywood Reporter (January 20, 2017): https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/incredible-jessica-james-review-966563

 

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Mulvey Laura and Peter Wollen, dirs., The Riddles of the Sphinx, dist. BFI, 1977.

 

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Strouse, Jim. Dir., Q&A after the screening of The Incredible Jessica James, Sundance Film Festival 2017, Grand Theatre, SLC, January 29, 2017.

“Summer Talks: Before Midnight,” Film Society of Lincoln Center, Interview with Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and July Delpy, YouTube (June 6): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLdeVf3rfCk&t=1826s

Winfrey, G. “Netflix Acquires The Incredible Jessica Williams – Sundance 2017.” Indie Wire (January 23, 2017): https://www.indiewire.com/2017/01/netflix-the-incredible-jessica-james-sundance-film-acquisition-1201772599/