I met up with fellow Toronto based film writer Kiva Reardon on a chilly fall evening at a local coffee shop. Only a few days into the Rob Ford debacle, a television in the background drones on ominously about the embattled current Mayor’s options while we gather to talk, quite ominously about the subject of doom.
Not that the conversation we were about to have was anything to be worried about or seen as foreboding, but the concept of doom in relation to certain films is the unifying subject for the latest issue of cléo, a journal of film and feminism that was co-founded by Reardon earlier this year. A quarterly publication where writers discuss themes and issues in cinema from a feminist perspective, cléo has previously had issues based around the concepts of flesh and home that looked at a wide range of films from Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy and Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, to more Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire and the Tom Cruise starring sci-fi epic Oblivion.
The latest issue debuts this week, looking at all things tragic in yet another wide array of films, including the Oscar nominated Canadian film Monsieur Lazhar, the economic downturn in America documentary Detropia, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, and Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (including an interview with the French filmmaker herself).
Dork Shelf talked with Reardon about the formation of the journal, varying definitions of feminism, why she’s always pleasantly surprised with the wealth and range of films they are able to look at, and what film writing inspires her the most as a writer and an editor.
Dork Shelf: How did cléo come about, and how did you pull everyone together to work on it, since you’re listed as the Founding Editor?
Kiva Reardon: It just started when I sent an email to a bunch of people. I think the subject line was “A semi-formed idea,” and the first line was something like, “Feel free to delete this if it’s something that you’re not interested in at all.” (laughs) But I had been wanting to start a journal for a couple of months, and this was around the time that Skyfall was coming out, and everyone was talking about Bond and his feminism and if you could even be feminist and like James Bond, and I thought that was a fascinating conversation to have, so that stuff was really on my mind at the time. I sent out the email and pretty much everyone got back to be and said “This sounds like a great idea! I’d love to help!” And then people started agreeing to helping out in different ways. Some people expressed interests in editing, some people expressed interest in writing, others who would like to help get grants and things like that to fund it.
Then we basically just had a bunch of feminist pizza party movie nights, and from there people started to express more of an interest in what they wanted to do and we started to shape the issue. After that it just became a real collective effort. That was from November of last year and the first issue came out in April of this year, so it did take us a little while to figure out what we wanted to do. And a lot of it did end up being building websites and figuring out stuff like that, and figuring out how we were going to cultivate our writers.
For that first issue, all of the pieces came from within, and then after that we started out putting out calls. Julia Cooper, our managing editor, really takes control of that every issue. We’ll come up with ideas together and then we basically have people submit abstracts and from there we’ll select the ones that sound the best or fit the best in terms of how the issue is starting to shape up and what the theme will most likely be. Then the editing and writing will begin!
DS: I know from reading your stuff and knowing you for a while now that looking at film from a feminist perspective is something that you have focused on over the past several years. It’s something that you strive for no matter who you are writing for, and you never handled it like it was some sort of niche that you were filling. What’s it like to now surround yourself with people who have similar ideas and are working towards a similar goal? What is it like from your point of view to create a team rather than to just be on a team?
KR: It’s like you said. It’s not like any of us were trying to “fill a niche” at all. It was very much a passion project for us because… Well, we like to kind of sarcastically joke that we can make MILLIONS off of feminist film criticism journals (laughs). But I think, ultimately, that’s what makes it work. These people are contributing because it’s something they are all passionate about and they look at and live their lives in a feminist way. We’re not seeking to define what feminism is, but we all love to have conversations about what it is. It’s just being able to have these dialogues about what we think feminism is, what we want to be highlighting in certain issues, and what issues are coming within the political movement that is feminism, and how that then affects representations in both mainstream film, smaller films, and now since it’s in a journal format we can go back and look at older films, as well. There’s a whole world out there that we can look at here and not just really super specific titles.
But it’s so great to be working with people who are working together on something that they all believe in. Our submissions editor Mallory Andrews does so much work; going through all the submissions, liaising with all the writers. And we all have day jobs, as well, so it’s really nice to be a part of a team where everyone is focused towards one end and we all work just as hard on this. Sometimes it’s hard because writing for other outlets because you often have to quell down what you’re doing, so it’s nice to be a part of a team where we can all be open about this.
And based on the numbers we get, too, people really seem like they want to read it. That was nice because it was something we were always really striving to do, which was to make it accessible. We didn’t want to be too academic or too high minded in tone, but we didn’t want to be speaking down to readers or anything like that. And we don’t ever want to be alienating, but we do want to bring up and ask difficult questions and have people think and engage with their own thoughts and views on feminism.
DS: It seems like from the range of voices you’ve had over the past two issues that you are all on the same page, but it seems like there’s also like you guys take a point of view that there is no “right or wrong” answer, which is a trap that a lot of outlets and journals fall into. A lot of the pieces that I have read even if you were to just look at them on a surface level weren’t always “feminist pieces,” if you think about it. It’s just really good film writing.
KR: And I think that’s awesome and kind of the inverse reason of why I think readers keep coming back. There are pieces that are strong and what comes though. That was what we were always aspiring to. People are engaging with these pieces on many different levels, too. Some will be overt feminist readings on films, others might not even touch on it at all, but they would still have a feminist slant to them. We say that in our abstracts, as well; that they are either from a feminist perspective or informed by a feminist perspective.
DS: A lot of times when you see a piece that has a feminist perspective out in the open it’s not dumbed down for the reader, but you guys are also often looking for that perspective in movies where it might not be as obvious. But either way, it’s always about the movie itself.
KR: Yeah, and I mean you could write something very easily for a lot of movies. You can look at a film and just say “Oh, hey, look, a female protagonist,” but that wouldn’t necessarily be that interesting. Sure, it’s a piece that I could see working or functioning as a kind of trend piece to take a look at where the industry is going, but as a specific film it might not be as exciting to talk about. There could be a way to cover that from an industry perspective.
But we try to have films that have a richer level of engagement where you can think your way into something instead of just having a really cursory, superficial idea or simplified form of feminism. Personally, too, I am really interested in engaging with and constantly thinking about what it means to be a feminist and what it means and what feminist film criticism can stand for or mean. I think it is an ongoing, ever changing thing. It’s an organic and constantly evolving political movement, so having all of these different voices I think gives us a nice little snapshot of where we are. Maybe that’s kind of full of hubris to say, though. (laughs)
DS: Has there been any sort of criticism yet against you guys, not necessarily from people who don’t get the concept, but from people who think you might spend more time on the films and less time on the feminism? Has anyone said yet that you don’t go far enough?
KR: We haven’t had anyone get into the “My feminism is better than your feminism” arm wrestling contests, or anything like that. I actually had to stop myself for a second because I would have said something far crasser, gendered, and non-applicable just then. (laughs)
There are definitely people who I think have disagreed with pieces, which will always happen in criticism, but I don’t think anyone has said that we fundamentally misread something or that we haven’t gone far enough. But these conversations do always happen, but ultimately that’s a really privileged conversation to have if you’re going to bring up that argument. I also fully realize that we’re talking about films, and there are women and men out there doing far more important work that engages real world consequences and lived experiences of women. So, I do understand that I’m not changing the world, and we aren’t trying to do that, but at the same time all of us work in film in some capacity – either as writers or production companies or as distributors – so this is our world and our current shared experience. And what we can do within that world is to shape and bring a bit of our feminism to it.
Because it is an industry that’s across the board dominated mostly by men. Writers, producers, actors, screenwriters, everybody. Even seeing women talk on screen is something that Hollywood seems to still have an aversion to. (laughs) It’s something that I think is worth addressing, but even I realize that it’s not hardcore field work. There are way more important people out there doing that.
DS: It seems like even though cléo has only been around for a short period of time, a lot of people have really taken notice of it within the film community. A.O. Scott from The New York Times has already talked about it. Are you surprised at how much it has gotten out there already after only two completed issues?
KR: I am! I remember hitting publish on the first issue and emailing Mallory, Julia Cooper, our managing editor, Eleni Deacon, who is one of our contributing editors, and Lindsay Jensen, one of our writers, because we were the core group who was there at the beginning, and I told them we were going to publish it. And I just remember sitting there, because I am a self-employed person, in my pyjamas on my couch wrapped in a blanket just hovering over the publish button, and thinking “Welp! Let’s just see what happens!”
And really quickly people were taking notice. A lot of that was because of social media, which I think is a new era in feminism that’s really interesting, and how digital initiatives have created both positives and negatives. There’s a joke going around now about how people online can be “internet feminists,” which I think is ridiculous because it presupposes that your online presence doesn’t look like your day-to-day life. Our online selves and our lived selves are totally intertwining, so it makes sense that these two things would merge, and that social media would become a community where you could have a happy sense of dialogue.
But in terms of the first issue, I think we came through a lot faster than we ever could have imagined. Scott Tobias linked to it almost immediately, and that was really nice of him. And it’s not like he was doing me a favour or anything like that. If he didn’t like it he could have said that or he could have just said nothing at all. (laughs) So I think a lot of what really helps us is that we are online and we don’t have to have a presence outside of that just yet. We haven’t gone the print route… yet. We might at some point, but being digital has been great in terms of us being able to spread it far and wide.
DS: The other benefit of having a digital journal versus a print journal because the costs are often less, and you can keep a lot more in a piece than having to cut things down because of space concerns and cost overruns. These are very in-depth pieces. Do you guys have a sort of guideline that you would like to keep in place even though you’re writing for the web?
KR: Yeah, but if a piece calls for something lengthy, it’s great that we can be able to accommodate that and not have to limit it to a single page. But we do ask that pieces try to be between 1,500 to 3,000 words, which is a pretty generous range. But it’s nice to even be able to have that range because that length will often go hand in hand with the film being covered. Some movies you can struggle to think of 100 words about them and others you need 10,000 just to scratch the surface. So having that flexibility is nice, and obviously online the cost is lower, and you’re really just looking at things like domain names, hosting sites, and all that “fun stuff.”
DS: Have there been any surprises you guys have run into that you didn’t expect in terms of submissions that you guys get or pieces that have taken you off guard?
KR: It’s funny because we haven’t actually expected anything. (laughs) Really. We had a whole bunch of pitches for the last few issues and we just think it’s crazy and awesome that people actually want to do it! You feel like everything is always unexpected, and we’re all still just learning as we go and just rolling with the punches, but I think the last thing we were really surprised and taken aback by was when we ran out of beer at our last party. (laughs) That was seriously the biggest problem we’ve had.
DS: When you get into film writing, you do it because you love film. That comes even before the feminism or the writing itself when it comes to the job overall. Not necessarily in terms of personal priorities, but as a job, the film always comes first. What film writing in general inspires you that you have used as a guide as a writer and editor in terms of what you look for in a piece?
KR: Well, in terms of my own “journey,” if you want to call it that, to whatever it is that I’m doing with my life, I started writing about film in my undergrad because of Professor Ned Schantz at McGill University. I loved writing for his classes because you had these major essays, but every week you would also have these shorter pieces that were 500-800 words where you had to write about whatever it was you were watching, which is something that sounds really familiar to people like us who have to write reviews all the time. But that started clicking in my brain that I really liked doing this and I really liked engaging with films in that way. A lot of credit goes to him.
But in terms of writing, I’m always obsessed with what Manohla Dargis has to say. I always wait on her opinions with baited breath. I love the tone that she strikes. She’s usually really funny and incredibly smart, and I love that balance that she brings to her writing. But I can also say that I will consume every issue of Cinema Scope from cover-to-cover as soon as it comes in.
A lot of the inspiration for the journal, actually came from Reverse Shot, which is based out of New York and is edited by Michael Koresky, who is an AMAZINGLY patient editor and has put up with me on a great number of things already. (laughs) He’s so generous, but what I appreciate about that journal, which is online, as well, but they pursue it with a print-based vigor. It’s the kind of place where stories will have a time where they will go to bed, and it’s locked and nothing else will change. That’s always an issue with the internet, where people can just look at something and throw it up and they can always go back and edit it. No. You should have a locked and final copy in there. That level of editorial vigor is something I always wanted in our journal.
Right now I’m reading B. Ruby Rich’s Chick Flicks, which is a delight to go through, and it’s a really interesting take on feminist film writing, and her take is to bring the personal back into the writing. It’s memoirs-slash-criticism-slash-commentary.
DS: Which is the one thing in university that you are told never to do if you want to be seen as being “academically serious.”
KR: Yeah! Exactly, and we don’t do it at the journal, either. But it is something that came up in our discussions. Did we want to include personal reflections in this? But I feel right now where we’re at is that if you can do it really well, we would love to include it
DS: And I think if you do go to set out and create a film journal from a feminist perspective, it’s something that will inevitably lead to an emotional response because people are always emotional about films.
KR: Yeah, it is political and a loaded word and people might have expectations of what feminism means, but with regards to the films, you’re right. Especially when it comes to the films themselves.
DS: What films do you find the most interesting to look at from a feminist perspective that you would like to see covered in future issues?
KR: Well, our next issue after this one will be on the topic of “crave,” and no one has yet written about Catherine Breillat’s films yet, so that would be really nice if someone did that. (laughs) That’s the first thing that comes to my mind, actually.
But that’s one of the things that I love about receiving pitches, because I’m approached with takes on films that I personally never would have thought of. In our issue about “home,” we ran a piece about the movie Oblivion that Lindsay wrote, and at first I was, like, “Really, Lindsay?” (laughs) But then you read it and it’s just the coolest thing. She has such a strong take on the movie and she’s such a strong writer. He argument was solid and the tone was sincere. It got linked to by The Dissolve as a piece of notable film writing. You want to consider things like that, too, because Oblivion is a more recent film that people would still be talking about and still remember, and you don’t want it to all be about obscure films that no one has heard of or can’t easily be seen. It’s nice to be able to strike that balance.
And also, when these submissions and pitches start coming in, it’s an excuse to go out and watch all these movies now! (laughs)