Watching films and reading about them is thrilling. Whether light criticism, personal entries, or academic scholarship, in one form or another it's the embodiment of what you wanted to discover and learn more about when you first put on that movie. But like with most things that become monetised, this field of work has been overcharged with male energy and points of view, not always bad, but often the only ones being seriously considered. Cultural journalist Christina Newland is making moves to bridge that gap, by building off the voices of a strong network of female writers alongside her own astute words and mind, to deliver the much needed fresh dose of contemporary criticism and true freedom of speech into journalism and film discussion today. Here Christina takes the time to indulge my questions about the book and its topic, one that I myself have only recently started to truly delve into wholeheartedly. Clearly, reading about sex, desire and cinema just wasn't that fun before.
When did you start writing? And what have you learnt about your career path so far?
I mean, I started writing stories when I was a little kid! When I was about eight years old I used to get my grandfather to tell me stories about his life and try to write them down. So I always wanted to write, though I didn't always know about what. I started a blog after university, mostly for my own edification. I studied English and Film and I actually had loved writing and researching my dissertation so much that I wanted to continue writing about cinema, so I did. Some small, now defunct film publications offered to commission me, not for a ton of money, but for small fees. And it sort of went from there.
It hasn't always been easy and it's certainly not the most financially reliable job in the world, but it never fails to amaze me that I can get paid to write about movies for a living. It's an enormous privilege, in spite of the difficulties at times.
What is your relationship to film, past and present?
I guess it's hard to actually separate myself from films in some way, they're such a big part of my life. If I'm not watching them I'm writing or talking or reading about them!
Your upcoming book “She Found It At The Movies” talks about the female gaze in cinema, desire, and sex. What made you want to dive into this topic?
It was something I was always trying to sort of bury or hide. Ever since being a teenager and getting into films with James Dean and Marlon Brando in them, I knew that screen crushes and beautiful male stars were a huge part of my being drawn into being a cinephile. But I put that away because it didn't gel with being a professional, serious film critic in such a male industry. And over time, that didn't sit right with me, because I knew that there was more to say on the subject and that actually it was quite a deep-rooted thing. So in September 2017, I was commissioned by Sight & Sound to write a sort of manifesto for putting female desire back into writing about movies, and the idea for the book came from that. I wrote about 2000 words and felt like I'd only just skimmed the surface. There was so much more to say.
As an experienced columnist and culture journalist, how did the idea and process of compiling a collection of essays on this topic come about?
I knew I wanted to put together a collection of essays because female desire and our relationship with movies was just too complex and individual. It had to be from a variety of different perspectives, not just from my POV as a white, straight cis woman. I already know a selection of truly talented women and non-binary culture writers, so I opened up submissions not just to them but publicly, so it was a democratic process.
Do you think this has started to normalise itself in film and everyday conversations?
I think it has to some extent, and I'm so into it. Don't get me wrong: I don't think it's feminist every time a woman expresses her lust for someone in a film, but I think the conversations happening around this stuff are useful and interesting. They're also fun, and I think that has a lot more mileage than people give it credit for. It seems like as soon as we speak about women and sex in film, we're talking about #MeToo. That is a vitally important, crucial conversation, but I just wanted women to feel they could also be sex-positive and have some fun with those conversations, too. We spend so much time dodging male lust, we hardly have any time or room to look at our own.
What are your favourite films about desire, and why?
Ones that had a big formative impression for me as a teenager, that were explicitly featuring sex that was *actually* sexy: "Y Tu Mama Tambien", "The Dreamers". I also think that, the sexiest films are often more about implication than sex specifically. A film I come back to a lot, which I screened for the BFI season, is "The Way We Were". That seems like an odd one, but to me I love the desirous, openly yearning female character and the ultimate love object in the form of Robert Redford. Women have always had people like Redford - movie stars, musicians - who they could lust over in large numbers and make it safer that way, somehow. You can't be singled out as a slut if there's a huge group of you all desiring the same idol. Movie stars are ideal for this. So sometimes films that aren't even necessarily *about* desire per se can be revealing in terms of female audiences and their desires.
The erotic thriller had a moment of intense success during the nineties. To you, what about the genre makes it so revolutionary and compelling?
I mean, some of them aren't revolutionary at all, but reactionary when it comes to women's roles - especially stuff like "Fatal Attraction", which goes above and beyond to vilify and punish the sexually active, independent career woman who exists outside the traditional family.
Having said that, the best of them - like "The Last Seduction" or "Bound", for example - caricature men as these easily-fooled and simplistic sex-starved beings who smart women can use to their own ends. But erotic thrillers are often so schematic and so dominated by male filmmakers that it can be difficult to see real eroticism in them.
Where do you think the female gaze differs from the male gaze? And vice versa, where do they coalesce?
It's a complicated question. 'The male gaze' was a term coined by the incredible scholar Laura Mulvey, and her piece on it has defined so much of the cultural conversation about where the camera focuses its erotic energy and why. The female gaze is murkier in origin & meaning. Some use it just to mean a woman's directorial vision. Others to specify how a woman director may have a different way of seeing things, outside the traditional masculine way. Others think of it as a reversal of the male gaze, so -- ogling men. I think the jury is still out on there being one unified definition. I'd always encourage any writer or curator using it to be specific in terms of what they mean for that reason!
And I would love to hear about your experience compiling and creating your upcoming film season at the BFI, “Thirst: Female Desire on Screen” – what was involved, what did you want to generate (conversations, commentary, aesthetics)?
The idea of choosing a dozen movies to represent the subjects in the book and across the topic of female desire was daunting. It's basically impossible to do. But I tried to pick a mixture of populist Hollywood choices that speak to female audience members' experience - "The Way We Were", "Magic Mike XXL" - with stories about sexual awakening from female directors - "Pariah", "Diary of a Teenage Girl" - and rarer gems, like the first film to feature a lesbian kiss, "Madchen in Uniform" (1931), or "Instinct", a Dutch film from 2019 about falling in lust with a convicted sex offender. That last one is pretty shocking and transgressive. Not everyone will agree with or like all my choices, particularly because desire is so incredibly complex and subjective, but that's why I always wanted it to be a season with lively conversation built into it. That's why there are so many discussion events with audiences in the season. There's no one answer. It was never about me curating a definitive season and telling people what was what. It's about asking questions, and a multiplicity of voices.
What inspires you, as in what stimulates you creatively and intellectually?
Just depends on the day, but: lively debates with cinephile friends, travelling, watching old films, reading as many different types of writing as I can.
Who are your favourite cinematic and literary voices about desire?
In literature, definitely Anais Nin. Her erotica is great, but so is her writing about the act of looking and just enjoying that. Cinematically, Catherine Breillat and Claire Denis are remarkable.
And finally, how would you describe the topic of sex and desire through the female gaze on film to someone who has no interest in it? Or, why is it important, interesting, what is changing and morphing and what are we learning and getting from the films themselves and the study of them?
Film is such a deeply affecting medium and it usually gets to us at a very tender age, so naturally I think it has an influence on the way we think about sex and sexuality. You don't have to be an expert on movies or particularly interested in female sexuality to see that; we all have our own stories or little moments onscreen that sparked something in us. I wanted to put that relationship under the lens, especially at a time when female pleasure and sex positivity feels important to focus on. The world and definitely the film industry are still profoundly unequal in terms of gender and sexuality, and so much of that is bleak, so why shouldn't we be able to make space for these conversations? With "She Found it at the Movies", I tried to get all the writers to hit the right balance between personal essay and larger cultural analysis. It's a really engaging way to read about our relationship to films and how they influence us.
"She Found it at the Movies", published by Red Press 31/01/2020 - available to order here
Follow Christina on Twitter here
All images in this article are courtesy of Christina Newland and/or her book's publishing company, Red Press.
This article will feature in the April Print Edition of Strand Magazine, which advertises the upcoming film season "Thirst: Female Desire On Screen" at the BFI Southbank, curated by Christina Newland. Check out the programme here.