KAREN ARTHUR IN CONVERSATION
- October 19, 2019
- Saturday, 12:00PM to 2:00PM
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KAREN ARTHUR IN CONVERSATION
Saturday, 12:00PM to 2:00PM
October 19, 2019
The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies presents a conversation with Karen Arthur
Miskatonic is proud to present a conversation with the pioneering director and producer Karen Arthur who paved the way for women in genre filmmaking with her transgressive and socially challenging body of work.
Arthur began her professional artistic career at the age of 15 dancing as a soloist with the Palm Beach Ballet company which took her to London, New York, and Los Angeles where she performed as an actor on Broadway and in a slew of films in Hollywood. Her time in Hollywood in the 1970s marked a turning point in her trajectory as an artist when she enlisted in a UCLA filmmaking course where she was encouraged by then-teaching assistant Penelope Spheeris (The Decline of Western Civilization, Suburbia, Wayne’s World).
Arthur’s 1975 directorial feature film debut Legacy, adapted from Joan Hotchkis’ one-woman play deconstructing the unraveling neurotic psyche of an affluent middle aged woman trapped in a loveless marriage, was a landmark entry in the feminist filmmaking canon in its unflinching depiction of the interior life of its protagonist viewed though a female lens. Legacy set the stage for Arthur’s next film, the darkly bizarre tale of sisterly psychosis The Mafu Cage (1977), starring Carol Kane and Lee Grant as the siblings Sissy and Ellen who inhabit a fantastically bizarre world of their own making complete with caged primates brutalized by the mentally unstable Sissy. The Mafu Cage is an exercise in exploding taboos, with themes of incest, bestiality, murder and colonialism tackled with such extreme eccentricity that, although celebrated on the art house film festival circuit, the film was doomed to be buried in obscurity and marketed as lowbrow exploitation prior to becoming the cult psychological horror classic that it is recognized as today.
Arthur’s next film project titled Lady Beware about a young woman plagued by a dangerously fixated stalker (which would eventually be made into a feature in 1987 with Diane Lane) was stuck in development purgatory, leading her to turn to television directing for work. In the heavily male-dominated world of TV in the late 1970s Arthur would become the first woman to work in episodic television, directing the show Rich Man, Poor Man for Universal Studios, making her the first woman to direct for the iconic studio since Ida Lupino’s Playhouse Series in the early 1950s. In 1983 she would direct the successful three-part Australian miniseries Return To Eden about an heiress who is the victim of foul play involving a crocodile attack, and in 1985 she would become the first woman in history to win a directing Emmy award for her work in the hit drama television series Cagney & Lacey.
Arthur’s prolific output in directing made-for-television movies began with Victims for Victims: The Theresa Saldana Story (1984) starring actress Theresa Saldana (of Raging Bull fame) as herself in the harrowing true story of the brutal near fatal stabbing attack she suffered at the hands of an obsessed fan. Arthur’s other notable made-for-television movies include the controversial story of the rape of a male police detective The Rape of Richard Beck (1985), Evil in Clear Water (1988) starring Randy Quaid, Fall From Grace (1990) – the biographical story of televangelists Jim and Tammy Bakker, played by Kevin Spacey and Bernadette Peters – and Against Their Will (1994), a drama of corruption in a women’s prison starring Judith Light.
Arthur’s early film work challenged the codes that dominated the lexicon of American cinema and defined the “woman’s picture”; a sexist classification assigned to movies concerning the lives of women, which were often relegated to the domestic, sappily romantic, or melodramatic. Arthur’s genre-defying work was both psychologically complex and artfully subversive, pushing the boundaries of cinema with a human rawness rarely seen at the time from a female auteur, redefining perceptions of what types of movies women were interested in making and consuming. When Legacy was released in 1975, Molly Haskell in her Village Voice review called it “a high-water mark in the exploration of women’s sexuality,” and Ed Pechulick of Film International wrote that the film “rivals the esteemed works of Bergman and Cassavetes.” Such accolades eventually helped persuade reticent male producers to give Arthur a shot in the world of professional television directing, where she continued to explore themes of female sexuality, violence and destructive male aggression towards women within the narrative trappings of the TV movie genre.
In this talk we will discuss the formative experiences that shaped Arthur’s journey in becoming a filmmaker, her artistic process in the creation of Legacy and The Mafu Cage, the inner workings and personal reflections on breaking the glass ceiling in the male dominated industry of television, and her films in the 1980s that deal with the complexities of sexual assault and toxic masculinity within a culture of often dangerous male supremacy.
Moderated by filmmaker and writer Remy Bennett