By Mike Dub
*Opens today at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco, the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley, and the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.
If you pay any attention to the New Releases section of Netflix, you are undoubtedly aware of the ever growing glut of “beautiful-portrait” documentaries being churned out every month by fan-geek filmmakers, political ideologues, and social critics. These films have become a subgenre of their own inside the documentary world. While some are highlighted by interesting anecdotes or big personalities, they tend to be broad, hagiographic snapshots that spend more time extolling the virtues of its subjects than the intricacies of their stories. They trade passion for breeziness, complexity for didacticism, and substance for charm. Consequently, they tend to rest in a somewhat self-assured middle ground – they are rarely either very good or very bad.
In the world of portrait docs, Mary Dore’s She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry fits the mold just about perfectly. Dore’s film, which tracks the progress of the women’s rights movement from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, is a palatable celebration of a handful of women who helped evolve the political landscape of America. Told mostly through historical footage and talking head interviews with an array of feminist hall-of-famers such as Jacqui Ceballos, Rita Mae Brown, and members of the Our Bodies, Ourselves Collective, the film provides an insider’s view of the first few years of what would become known as the women’s liberation movement.
Despite the revolutionary spirit of its subjects, the film maintains a stodgy, generic construction and visual style. Under Dore’s direction, She’s Beautiful moves casually, almost without purpose, between talking heads and historical footage, hitting every narrative beat at the textbook time, while the soundtrack is a hodgepodge of thirty-second clips from 60s rock songs, La Tigre and Cat Power. It’s easy to see that Dore is a passionate disciple of her subjects, but the rote presentation expresses her admiration more than her inspiration.
Still, like many other portrait documentaries, Dore’s film unearths enough information to maintain our interest. However, the film’s scope is so wide that it merely mentions stories that could be entire films themselves. An early ‘60s anti-war rally in which women were booed off the stage by misogynistic catcalls from the male-dominated crowd; the inability to unite women of different classes and races; an urban commune of women who refused the involvement of any men in their lives; a safe but illegal abortion clinic that ran with the clandestine precision of a spy ring, complete with code words and constantly changing locations. While pieces like those are insightful and interesting, they are consistently undermined by hacky dramatizations, awkward direct address readings of feminist works, and a particular sort of braggadocio that is so fundamental to boomer mythologizing. (It takes less than ten minutes for the first person to utter that most patronizing phrase: “It’s difficult to understand what it was like back then.”)
The women featured in She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry helped make great strides in advancing the political power of women in the United States. However, these accomplishments are made no more significant or impressive by the film’s peculiar implication that their generation was not only the most important one, but that so many of the problems they faced don’t exist anymore. Aside from the short, tacked-on bookends that mention the recent erosion of abortion rights, there is no discussion whatsoever of the problems that still exist today for women.
That conflation of progress and resolution provides a convenient narrative, and permits an ostensibly triumphant climax, but ultimately it lacks weight. Because when it comes to issues of pay equality, sexual objectification, stifling gender roles, impossible standards of beauty, the vilification of rape victims, and a general paranoia about the feminization of America, I’m pretty sure modern women understand what that’s like.