SEPT / OCT 2012: BY RACHEL SEXTON
Even though presenting the past on film has always been a part of Hollywood’s output, in recent years, history in the movies has been jazzed up occasionally by filmmakers with various directorial choices and techniques. Every period film isn’t made this way but some feature certain enhancements only made possible with today’s technology. One can only assume this is done in an attempt to appeal to modern sensibilities. Ridley Scott did this for ancient Rome in Gladiator, and in 2004, director Katja von Garnier completed a film for HBO that does the same. Iron Jawed Angels is directed in such a way that history feels alive and memorable.
In plot terms, this is one of the few historical dramas based on actual events that is focused on women’s history. It dramatizes the events surrounding the passing of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution allowing women to vote. In 1912, Alice Paul (Hilary Swank) and Lucy Burns (Frances O’Connor) return to the U.S. from a trip to work with the suffragists in England. They meet with the old guard leaders of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, otherwise known as NAWSA. Carrie Chapman Catt (Anjelica Huston) and Dr. Anna Howard Shaw (Lois Smith) aren’t comfortable with the militant tactics the younger women favor, so Paul and Burns form the National Women’s Party, or NWP. Their sole mission is a constitutional amendment assuring women the vote, and they pull out all the stops to get it. They struggle through no money, physical hardships and the indifference or outright hostility of other women to bring the amendment to Congress for a vote.
When World War 1 breaks out in the midst of their efforts, they anger almost the entire nation by continuing to picket President Wilson. They are arrested, imprisoned and Paul is subjected to force feeding until their treatment reaches public knowledge and they are released. In 1920, they succeed and the 19th Amendment is passed.
Out of all the aspects of a film under a director’s control, editing is probably one of the most interesting. There are times when filmmakers intend for it to be practically invisible (which is most of the time) while other times directors can do out of the ordinary things with it and editing becomes the most conspicuous tool at a director’s disposal. Editing includes things like transitions between shots and whole scenes, colorings, and different film speeds. A classic example of editing technique is the montage, where brief shots are intercut to form a sequence. This has been a part of films so long that we in the audience don’t notice it anymore, and there is more than one example of that in Iron Jawed Angels, such as when the suffragettes go door to door to drum up support. However, von Garnier establishes a flashy editing style from the very beginning of this film. The opening title sequence sets the tone with completely modern music and von Garnier cuts between shots on the beat and also uses slow motion again set to the music.
That’s another area where a sense of today is injected into this historically-based tale—the music. The song in the opening credits is “Everything You Want” by Vertical Horizon, and that is only the first example. Contemporary music runs throughout, such as soul singer Lauryn Hill’s “Everything is Everything” and the striking song that plays over the end titles, “Beautiful (7’ Canny Mix)” by Mandalay. As mentioned before, sometimes editing is done in time with these tunes in this movie. von Garnier clearly made a conscious and artistic choice to use modern music instead of just a score. These songs have an indelible beat that marks them as products of the here and now, so to hear them set against events from almost a century ago is visceral.
The content of this film is another aspect treated in such a way that feels more accessible to the viewer than a typical period drama. First, simply the fact that this is a female-focused story is not usual for film, particularly in films recounting actual historical events. Unless it’s a biopic about a specific historically important woman, cameras are usually not troubled with female perspectives. This project not only tells about women, it is acted and directed by women. Moreover, the emotional lives of these women of the past are presented in a way that shows an attempt at authenticity and respect. For example, Alice interacts with Ben Weissman (Patrick Dempsey) and though his character is invented for the film and isn’t allowed to overshadow the central plot, a delicate romantic entanglement develops between them, so much so that another montage sequence relates Alice’s erotic thoughts of him while bathing. At the other end of the spectrum of human experience, the scenes of Alice’s force-feeding while imprisoned are harrowing and graphic, something not commonly expected in historical drama.
Iron Jawed Angels and the noticeable directing choices in it are memorable for the audience. Though directors can make similar choices within any genre, the historical drama seems a particular favorite for them, seemingly as a way to generate more interest for today’s viewers than might occur for a period drama without them. Films set in the past that have yet to be released will probably follow this style at least to some extent. The trailers for the upcoming adaptations of Anna Karenina and The Great Gatsby imply that their direction will also be atypical when compared with other historical films. Let’s hope they work as well as Iron Jawed Angels. ■
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Sexton is from Ohio and has a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Arts. She loves her parents and her dog Lily. But what you really need to know is that she has to have acting, film, reading, and dance in her life and her favorite fandoms are Star Wars, Harry Potter, Jane Austen, and Once Upon a Time. Plus, she is most described as quiet and her biggest vice is cupcakes. Oh, and her main hobby is editing fan videos.