The Created Woman is a three-day festival presented by Mayhem Film Festival and Film Hub Central East, with support from the BFI as part of their nation-wide programme Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder. The festival promises to deliver a new perspective on the genre by exploring the theme of the ‘created woman’, with highlights including screenings of 60s Hammer horror Frankenstein Created Woman, 80s SF B-movie Cherry 2000 and satirical classic The Stepford Wives, as well as discussions on topics such as ‘robot women and created wives’.
Eithne Farry spoke to Mayhem co-directors Chris Cooke and Steven Sheil and London Film Festival Programme Advisor Sarah Lutton, who co-curated the season.
Eithne Farry: Tell me a little about Mayhem.
Chris Cooke: Mayhem started as a short film programme dedicated to horror, but it quickly expanded into an annual four-day festival covering horror, science fiction and cult cinema held in October, bringing great guests and audiences together. We’ve welcomed Nic Roeg, Gareth Edwards and many more through our doors, and the audiences have grown in size and enthusiasm. But Mayhem also screens films throughout the year and our interest in sci-fi has grown too.
Steven Sheil: Over the years we’ve altered and expanded our programming, partly to reflect our own interests and tastes as curators, but also in response to our audience and what they tell us that they’re interested in. Over the past few years we’ve brought more science fiction into the mix, and the BFI’s Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder programme seemed like a good opportunity to do something centred around the genre. We always want to be looking at new opportunities to reach out and expand our audience, while still keeping a solid genre grounding to what we do.
What got you thinking about ‘the created woman’ in sci-fi?
CC: It’s a strong, visible theme in the genre and one that isn’t always given focus and attention. Women can be central to the narrative, but the idea of creating life seems to have led a number of writers and filmmakers to contemplate the notion of ‘creating’ women, from robots to brides for Frankenstein’s monster, and asking what that means for society, culture and sex.
SS: There was an interesting season I saw advertised last year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music which was called ‘Vengeance Is Hers’, themed around female-centred revenge movies. It looked great – I really liked its themed, cross-genre approach. I guess that was an inspiration. And as Chris says, the idea of the created woman is a recurring one in fiction – and especially in science fiction – from the Pygmalion myth right up to things like Her and the great British sci-fi film from last year, The Machine. I think it’s interesting from many aspects, not least from a gender perspective. The story of the artificial human is often one which culminates in a fight over agency – whether the creation can be his/her own person – and the fact that this often takes place within a male/female dynamic offers a lot of scope for analysis.
Sarah Lutton: As a woman and a fan of sci-fi I was always intrigued, if not a little bemused, by the common perception that the genre was seen as very ‘male’. In some ways I can understand it, since it’s easy to see that many of the most active roles in sci-fi films are taken by male characters. However, for me, science-fiction film in particular has always offered really interesting alternate realities in which to explore gender relations and dynamics. I responded to the wealth of interesting female characters, both active and more passive, that I saw on screen. I felt that there were some very revealing messages being communicated about creativity and society in general.
Was there a particular film that was the starting point?
CC: Two sprung instantly to mind for me. The Bride of Frankenstein is Gothic science fiction at its wildest, James Whale really enjoys himself here. But the film that immediately made me want to progress with it was 1987’s Cherry 2000, from Steve De Jarnatt, who made the incredible cult film Miracle Mile (1988). Cherry 2000 is another forgotten gem from him. The ideas are really clear in this: a society where people have to draw up contracts before men and women can even go on dates has led to a division between genders, and yuppies, like our central character, have robot sex-dolls. But when those break down, real people (real women) are going to have to come to their aid to find the spare parts in a desolate wasteland (the result: a future American civil war). Metaphors are everywhere, but the film is bold and direct. And Melanie Griffith has a great time as a tough and resourceful ‘tracker’ tasked with finding the elusive Cherry 2000 for her yuppie client (all very 80s). The film was written by Michael Almereyda, who directed the great alt-vampire film Nadja in 1994, which was shot on pixel-vision cameras (continuing a love affair with technology and narrative).
SS: With Metropolis and Bride of Frankenstein, you have two really iconic images of created women, so those two really helped to spark off the ideas for the season. I was also interested in getting something like Hammer’s Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde into the mix – it’s such a weird film with lots of strange undercurrents.
SL: The film Blade Runner and Philip K. Dick’s source novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep have always been iconic for me in terms of thinking generally about artificial life and created female life specifically. I found the ideas about creating life forms for such varying reasons both intriguing and hugely provocative (especially the creation of the niece/Rachael model). We’ll be screening Blade Runner as a kind of coda to the ‘Created Woman’ season on 14 December at Broadway Cinema.
How do you think that the idea of the created woman has changed over time?
CC: The theme of creating women to replace real women has become real – there are sex dolls that talk, and real fembots on the way, disturbingly. Maybe that’s the real difference, that what was suggested by Metropolis has been made fact. But the ideas are there, from Spike Jonze’s Her to S1mOne, the advance of technology suggests new spins on older themes and ideas.
SS: I’m not sure how much has changed really – that’s why it’ll be good to see the films up against one another, to look at whether things have really developed. I think it’d be interesting to see more films that look at created women from a female perspective. We have Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Teknolust, featuring Tilda Swinton as a scientist cloning herself, but otherwise it’s mostly stories of men creating women, which is just a by-product of there being fewer female filmmakers working in the genre, I think.
SL: I think that maybe we as audiences have changed a lot. I’m really hoping that by offering the opportunity to see these films in a more comparative context we can watch them with fresh eyes and make new connections. I think that in the wake of films like Her audiences are approaching ideas about gender and artificial intelligence/life in a rather different way.
Is there a subversive slant to this idea of the created woman?
CC: The main idea, for me, is to get audiences talking and exploring the themes themselves, as well as discovering some new titles they’d perhaps missed, or getting to see some wonderful classics on the big screen. But the perverse pleasure of James Whale casting Elsa Lanchester to play both the creator of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, and the bride that Frankenstein creates for his man-made monster throws up all kinds of readings… And robots from Maria in Metropolis onwards have often been constructed feminine, only to turn on their societies in revolutionary acts. The films we’ve selected are fun, entertaining, exciting and provocative. Hopefully the audiences will have a lot to talk about as well as enjoy.
SS: I don’t know about subversive. With all of these stories there are strong subtexts about the nature of creation and about idealized versions of women, as well as what women’s role should be from a male perspective – which is quite chilling and damning in something like The Stepford Wives. So I guess that opens up a lot of debate about how society sees women and their role, but that’s an ever-present question. I guess we’re presenting the films in this context as a way of opening up a discussion about the theme, and I think it’ll be interesting to see the responses we get.
SL: Yes, I’m not sure about it being subversive but I’m hoping that the ideas are provocative in some way!
Interview by Eithne Farry