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Women Behind the Camera Create 'Stardust and Moonbeams'

On the set of Stardust and Moonbeams

Somewhere late in the 1920s, a woman at a photography exhibition notices that all of the nude photographs are of women, and all of the photographers are men. She decides to do something about that.

As writer-producer Madelyn Ritrosky puts it, she is going to "Grab the camera, change the view."

Film and Gender scholar Madelyn Ritrosky has gone back to her first passion, filmmaking, to tell the story of that thoroughly modern 1920s woman, in her new short film, "Stardust & Moonbeams."

"We're talking about imagery, equality of imagery, and what's out there in the culture," Ritrosky says.

Ritrosky's short film started out as a novel, "Stardust & Moonbeams," which she wrote with a co-author, Dena Huisman, and will publish in 2018. It's the story of Beth and Will, a young married couple in 1920s New Hampshire. He's a photographer, and she is a forward-thinking woman working to start something dangerous: A birth-control clinic. But after that exhibition of nude photographs, Beth decides she wants to get behind the camera, and do something even more dangerous: make nude photographs of her husband.

Ritrosky says the radical statement these two want to make is that "the exhibit would be a photograph of him, and a photograph of her, together. The woman created the image of the man, and the man created the image of the woman, and they're together."

Women Make Decisions

This story of a woman taking control of image-making knocked Ritrosky out of her academic groove. She reached out to female filmmakers working in Hollywood, to make her own statement: Women running the show . . . make a different show.

Ritrosky insisted that the key creative and production roles in her film would be women. Terry Farley-Teruel, the Director of "Stardust & Moonbeams," also directed the 2006 feature film Beautiful Dreamer, a World War II romance.

The cinematographer, the woman behind the camera, is Nancy Schreiber, a 40-year veteran of film and television cinematography. She is the first woman to be honored with the President's Award from the American Society of Cinematographers – a lifetime achievement award given by her peers in the male-dominated profession.

"When you look at the top, say, 500 films coming out of Hollywood," Ritrosky notes, "two, maybe three percent have a woman cinematographer. Well, if this film is about getting women behind the camera, I wanted the cinematographer to also be a woman." Ritrosky says that Schreiber "wanted to do our little project because she knows exactly what the situation is. She knows that there are few women working directly behind the camera. So she responded right away."

Local Talent For Top Production

Ritrosky recruited a woman Co-Producer local to Bloomington and deeply experienced in the production end of Hollywood movies – Kalynn Huffman Brower, former Film Production Faculty at Indiana University Telecommunications Department.

"I went to film school at USC, which many think is the best film school in the world," Brower reveals. "While I lived in LA I worked in post-production, so I have extensive experience cutting documentaries, promotions, corporate pieces, multi-screen pieces, I had something at Universal Studios Florida. And my Masters' film was also award-winning and went to some festivals."

Brower immediately understood the importance of bringing together talented women filmmakers, to tell a story about women creating their own images, their own way.

"Very few women think, ‘Oh! I want to write, I want to direct, I want to produce, I want to cut, I want to be a cinematographer, I want to help create and craft the images.' For whatever reason, the barriers seem very high," Brower says. "When I went to film school, going into production, I was the odd duck. There were no female teachers. When I was teaching here it was very similar very few women went into production, even though I was teaching here at the time. And 20 years later, very few women are still in production. Now that it's the Media School, the avenue still tends to be, women who want to be in front of the camera."

The jobs where women are accepted as naturals in production haven't changed, either, Brower says. "There are makeup artists – yeah, women. Costumers – women. The other roles, very few. And why that self-selection, I can't really answer it."

Madelyn Ritrosky remembers how she went from odd-duck to academic critic.

"I was an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and I wanted to go into production," she recalls. But after working a few jobs in production, she realized where her real interest was directed.

"I'm really interested in gender issues," she says, "particularly women in the media. Women's roles onscreen and behind the scenes." This led Ritrosky to earn her PhD in Media and Culture at Indiana University. "So it was kind of a big circle back, just in the last few years, back to where I thought I wanted to be a long time ago. And now here I am, working in filmmaking."

When A Woman Is In The Room

When asked what changes when a woman has control of the camera, Brower's response is immediate. "The camera angles, definitely," she asserts, and goes to explain that in the 1980s, she was working for Paramount Pictures, editing a promotional film for the hit comedy, Crocodile Dundee. That movie told the story of an Australian man of the swamp, played by Paul Hogan, who meets up with a pretty blonde journalist, played by Linda Kozlowski.

"So we're putting together a promo for Crocodile Dundee," Brower remembers, "and one of the shots is, no kidding, a low angle up her long, long legs, up under her hot pants. They're in a swamp, so for one thing the costuming is not realistic, but the camera angle itself, is like, ‘Okay, we're looking up her butt, I get it.' I mean, we're getting a good shot, but is that really what the story's about? Are we selling the sex?

"I refused to put that shot in the promo. I told my boss why, and he agreed with me. But if I hadn't've been there, they wouldn't've thought twice about that. They would've included that shot, like" she snaps her fingers – "'That's what we want to see out of that gal!' And it was probably the only shot in the movie of her like that. It was a real gratuitous sex shot, at a point in the film where, honestly, that's not what was going on. It was a point where they were stumbling through [the swamp] and trying not to get eaten. It wasn't a point where they were going to get down and get sexy with each other. So it was just kind of a ridiculous shot."

Four Women Photographers, Four Female Views

"Stardust and Moonbeams" is about a woman who uses photography to change her relationship with her husband, and ultimately change her public empowerment. Ritrosky and Brower were invited to look at four vintage photographs taken by women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – and identify what in each might be construed as evidence of the "female gaze."

Migrant Mother (1936) Dorothea Lange

Madelyn Ritrosky I think the fact that she took it of a woman with her children, is important. That's not to say there aren't male photographers who take photographs of women. But I'm thinking that, because she was a woman, she was relating to this woman's experience at a real basic level, and that was something that captured her eye, perhaps more readily, maybe, than a man.

Kalynn Huffman Brower – Yeah, I mean, a man might've taken this very same picture, but just the fact that she found it worthy of putting her frame on. And close! This is a medium shot of this woman. It's not, you know, she's in the distance and the farmer's on the porch protecting the homestead. She came right inside. It looks like they're in a tent.

Domestic scene (late 19th cent.) Gertrude Kasebier

MR – We're getting inside what would be that woman's primary space. Even if she worked outside the home, in a factory, she's responsible in the gender roles for this family setting, at the kitchen table. So to capture that, and have that, again, be worthy of capturing, I think that speaks to the woman being a photographer. This is something that is worthy of framing and capturing.

KHB – Yes! And the other thing I notice about it, it's not just that it's a worthy subject. But if you look at the way the people in this photograph are so natural in their own space. It's not staged at all. It's very casual. The dishes are all tumbled, the man doesn't worry that his collar's kind of furled up. It's just a very, again, intimate, right into that domestic sphere – but without that kind of sense of being staged, and some idea of what a domestic scene might look like. It feels real.

MR – Even in the 19th century, when you look at photographs, even the ones that are more, quote, informal, most of the time the people are posed. And of course there's a technical thing there, the camera having a longer exposure. But nonetheless, I think that's an important point.

KHB – (laughing) Look at the dishes!

Self Portrait (as New Woman) (1896) Frances Benjamin Johnston

KHB – It's got attitude!

MR – I think it's a great self-portrait! And for those people who are younger and don't know so much about that historically, that was a big thing – for her to have that cigarette in her hand, and that stein of beer in her hand, and to be sitting that way. Big, big, big. That presentation is saying, "Women can do what they want." She is heralding the modern woman to come, shortly after this.

KHB – In today's vernacular, she's leaning in. (laughing) Her physical body posture –

MR – Yeah!

The last image is a self-portrait by a woman who was part of the Surrealist movement in Paris. Claude Cahun changed her name to be androgynous. As an artist, she always presented herself as asexual, neutral, not gendered – perhaps making her one of the first trans artists. Her work and her self-presentation were always challenging public ideas of gender and behavior.

Self-Portrait (1930s) Claude Cahun

KHB – You know, everything about it, the lighting, is very chiascuro. Part of it is all black, and the rest of it is kind of blown out. She has a really strong profile.

MR – Also, and I'm sure she purposely did this, we don't see a whole lot of her clothing. It looks like she has on a black tank top, from the back. So that is also very neutral. Yeah. She has the power to do what she wants, to create her self-image the way she wants.

KHB – It's interesting, it's kind of a disdainful expression, if you look at it. Some of it's just her natural features, the way her mouth turns down, her lips. But it's also the angle of her head. "I dare ya!"

What Are The Choices?

These women photographers made their point of view felt within an image, when they took control of the camera. Young women today, as they start careers in media, still face a world full of challenging situations for women. How can they "change the view?"

Kalynn Brower aims her response carefully. "I would like to invite all the young women in the Media School in particular, here at IU, to remember – sure, don't be shy, get in front of the camera, but remember that it really is what's going on behind the camera, is how the choices are being made," she says. "Start thinking about what images you want to see. I mean, I got into this very specifically because there were stories I wanted to see, that I wasn't seeing about girls and about women! I'm still doing it."

For Madelyn Ritrosky, this short film pulls together her intellectual and creative worlds.

"I'm hoping to – in a fun way – to get people to think about these issues of who's actually behind the camera creating the images that we see," she says. "I've been a critic of the media for a long time in terms of women's roles. I finally decided that I want to be the change I want to see."

"Stardust & Moonbeams" will have a hometown screening in Bloomington after it has played in festivals in 2018. The music heard in this program is the 1922 song, "Maybe You Think You're Fooling Baby" arranged and performed by Linnzi Zaorski, courtesy of Strange Bird Jazz Syndicate, as part of the musical score for "Stardust & Moonbeams." Additional music is by Ron Keithe and John Patrick Lowrie.


Director - Terri Farley-Teruel

Writer/Producer - Madelyn Ritrosky

Producer - Kalynn Huffman Brower

Producer - Jo Throckmorton

Director of Photography - Nancy Schreiber, ASC

Based on the novel by Madelyn Ritrosky & Dena Huisman

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