Film programmers usually toil in obscurity, working diligently to make sure the focus is on the screen rather than on themselves, so there were a number of reasons KJ Relth, the assistant programmer at the UCLA Film and TV Archive, could relate to her latest series, “Working Girls: America’s Career Women On Screen,” which focuses on films about the often unseen lives of women in the workplace.
“I don’t want to martyr myself, but there’s so much research and a lot of watching and digging and consideration,” Relth said recently during a rare moment away from scouring the globe for 35mm prints, writing program notes and securing the last-minute confirmation of guests such as Sigourney Weaver, who will be appearing in conversation with the Los Angeles Times’ Jen Yamato this Friday to discuss “Working Girl” to launch the series.
Although Relth has largely put this on her own shoulders, she has used the program as an opportunity to galvanize the Los Angeles cineaste community, calling upon friends on Facebook to offer up suggestions for programming and teaming with Courtney Stephens and Kate Wolf at the feminist film and lecture initiative Veggie Cloud to expand the reach of the series both geographically, with some screenings taking place at Veggie Cloud’s screening space in Highland Park, and formally, incorporating a presentation on the depiction of female labor in television, co-created with Suki-Rose Simakis. (Additionally, admission will be free to Women in Film members for any screening in the series.) Still, in spearheading the series after it was initially proposed by the archive’s chief programmer Paul Malcolm, she has been able to put her own unique touch on “Working Girls,” a rare female-driven program in the city that reflects a diversity of experience, drawing on films throughout the 20th century, while becoming something quite personal in the wake of the sudden attention finally being paid to gender disparity and harassment in the workplace following the Harvey Weinstein scandal.
While films such as the 1933 Barbara Stanwyck pre-Code starrer “Baby Face” and Gregory LaCava’s 1935 comedy “She Married Her Boss” with Claudette Colbert remind that these issues have always existed, the “Working Girls” series comes at a time when the conversation around them can be genuinely reframed in more open terms and having more examples of practical paths towards equality to refer to. The mere presence of Relth and Simakis to lead conversations speaks volumes in itself, with both formerly programmers at Cinefamily, which suspended operations in August after allegations of sexual misconduct and reports of its female staff and volunteers being generally mistreated and marginalized surfaced. Other guests such as labor expert Laureen Lazarovici (appearing between screenings of “Norma Rae” and “Swing Shift”) and author/sex worker Siouxsie Q. James (“Girl 6”) are sure to engage audiences in different post-screening discussions than one would traditionally see at the Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood, and Relth’s selection of screenings that include “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead” and Kathleen Collins’ “Losing Ground” challenge what one’s ideas might be of what work is and how it relates to the overall female experience.
On the eve of the series, Relth spoke about the fortuitous timing of “Working Girls,” which was in development well before conversations about gender inequality in the workplace reached fever pitch, diverging from the beaten path for both films and speakers for the series and the value in bringing more contemporary films into the mix.
It was actually Paul Malcolm, the other programmer at the Archive, [who came up with the] idea originally. The original conception of the series was a bit more classic Hollywood-focused. As we were starting to think about it, our original brainstorm originally went only through the 1950s, and we were thinking that it would end up being this straight line [of] upward trajectory, mapping out the advancement and progression of the depiction of women in the workplace. But when I started digging in and looking at the vast number of titles that might fall into this category, I started to realize that [this] straight line trajectory that we were hoping to draw was actually more of a tree – it branched off in so many different directions, with one step forward and two steps back. It was actually way more nuanced than we thought, so I broadened the scope when I realized there was actually really rich material all the way through the ‘90s. I could’ve gone into the 2000s with films like “Erin Brockovich,” but I had to pump the brakes a little, because I wanted to situate the series only within the 20th century.
A film like “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead” immediately stands out since you wouldn’t expect it in the context of a serious-minded repertory series. How did a choice like that come about?
Originally, we were thinking [about] considering films where about half of the runtime was actually in an office space, but I realized the really one-dimensional view of this series is to show a lot of women behind desks with typewriters. That becomes pretty monotonous after a while, and as we get into the ‘70s, the 1980s, and especially the ‘90s, we see different understandings of what the workplace can be. With “Norma Rae,” it’s a factory. With films like “Girl 6,” it’s a call center for a sex hotline and with something like “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead,” I was really excited about this coming-of-age story through work, through Christina Applegate’s necessity to get a job because of the circumstances that she finds herself in, taking on this single mom role over the course of one summer and finding a job [initially] that doesn’t really work. She works at a fast food restaurant where her boss makes her do the most disgusting tasks, like clean up the mess in the sink, and [when] she refuses to do that anymore, she realizes, “Maybe I can go out and get something that actually will sustain my whole family.” I thought “Don’t Tell Mom” was a fun and cheeky inclusion because I think when we remember it, it’s a coming-of-age comedy about family and teenage love, but it has some really great scenes about the dynamic between her and her female boss [who she works for later], and not just their working relationship, but also their interpersonal one, alongside some really gross examples of men abusing their positions of power with their female underlings.
It was really important for me that this whole series be exhibited on celluloid, and every film in the series will be projected on 35mm, with the exception of the digital restoration of “Losing Ground.” In terms of some prints that I’m really excited to have the opportunity to show, one of them is the uncut version of “Baby Face.” We found a print at the Library of Congress which was restored in 2004 to its original release version, and I’m always excited about the opportunity to give audiences more of a look at pre-Code films because so many of them don’t survive. The same [is true of] “Working Girls,” which is on that same bill, that the UCLA Film and TV Archive restored in 1998.
I’m also really excited to show Cindy Sherman’s “Office Killer.” She only made one feature-length narrative film and she’s primarily known for her photography work, but she worked really closely with her cinematographer to make sure that the tableaus she set up in “Office Killer” are very similar to what they would be if we were looking at her photography. Her cinematographer Russell Fine did a great job of actualizing her photographs in the moving image. We’re using our print for that screening. It’s always exciting when we can show something that’s probably in really good shape because no one screens it. A lot of our prints from the late ‘80s and ‘90s are in really, really great condition because not a lot of people show ‘80s and ‘90s films in repertory context yet.
I’m also really thrilled about [“Girl 6,”] the Spike Lee film. I think a lot of people forget “Girl 6” [because it’s] critically panned, but not only do I think it deserves a rediscovery, but it has some really timely stuff in it. The first scene is an audition where for no reason other than the perverted fantasies and goals of the filmmaker, the actress is asked to take off her shirt, and [when she responds] “Why? I didn’t realize this was part of the role and I didn’t see that in the script,” they’re like, “Oh, we just want to make sure that you live up to the standards that we are requesting for this film.” And the filmmaker that is asking her to do this is Quentin Tarantino in a very, very early onscreen appearance, so that is really incredible.
Since that might conjure up the present-day conversation around gender dynamics in the film industry, was it interesting programming this series during this time of reckoning? From my understanding, this series might’ve been directed touched by it — in an abstract way — since you brought on Suki-Rose Simakis, a former programmer at Cinefamily, to work on this series after the fallout there.
Originally when we started researching for this series, it was before the Cinefamily scandal, before Weinstein, before any of this, but then all of a sudden, as I was putting it together, that became huge news. I don’t want to say that it directed our attention a little closer on certain kinds of films, because this series isn’t an overt response to what’s happened over the past few months or to #MeToo. It just happens to come at a very timely moment, and I will have that in mind as I move forward and with the guests that we’re inviting. The conversations we’ll be having will no doubt touch on that.
I brought Suki in because I really wanted to work with her. Suki has been a programmer for a very long time and is a Cinefamily refugee — I also was working at Cinefamily before I started at the [UCLA] Archive, but she and I met each other independent of Cinefamily. We were both on juries at Fantastic Fest in 2016, [where] we really got to know each other and realized we had similar sensibilities. This was a good opportunity to work with her and collaborate, but also an opportunity to give her space to do her thing, because with Cinefamily gone, with the New Beverly on hiatus for a couple months while they remodel, [I feel like] she needs the space to do this work. I’m glad we can find the space together — and that the space is granted by two other women who have such good instincts and are such good programmers: Courtney Stephens and Kate Wolf at Veggie Cloud.
But [our] experience at Cinefamily made both of us actually feel like we weren’t allowed to take up that space. It was a really hostile work environment for a lot of people, but especially for women, and I think that a lot of our ideas and our sensibilities were overpowered or invalidated. This is the first video mix that she’s put together since working at Cinefamily and we were talking about what a big moment that is for both of us, and what a big moment this series is for me. We’re both doing such thorough research into putting that mix together and we know that it’s going to be the best thing that we can make it be, but both of us have this feeling hanging over us [that] somehow we’re not allowed to be doing this. That’s just the post-traumatic stress from having worked [at Cinefamily] and [being] told our ideas were not good ones for so long.
It is a film series, but I specifically named the series “America’s Career Women On Screen” to give it that broader definition. In going through and curating the films that we’d be showing, I was initially sticking to studio films because they are the films that inevitably got the most distribution because of the muscle and the money behind them, but in looking for films that showed a really accurate, diverse representation of women in America entering the workplace, studio films unfortunately are primarily telling the stories of white, straight women. So I had to expand the scope of the series a little bit to include other voices and other representations. That’s where a film like “Losing Ground” comes in, which was an independent production that has a really interesting story that expands the idea of the workplace to the mind — the idea that a professor at the top of her game is constantly considering her work. It’s such an internal and mental type of work. [“Losing Ground”] considers the office space as always being with you.
For the TV mix specifically, there’s just always more diversity on television and we wanted to show how disparate that is from the offerings women get from studio films. I can tell you that “Ugly Betty” and “Living Single” are definitely going to be in there and we’re going back to the 1950s because it’s another side of this story — a serialized side of this story — and one that offers a lot more opportunity for different voices and to see different faces on screen and in the workplace.
It also must seem really interesting to think outside the box about guests to bring in – they’re not necessarily filmmakers, but labor experts and activists. Was that an exciting part of the process?
Oh yeah. Another thing that’s a little difficult when looking at films that are just inside the studio system is the reality that a lot of the filmmakers are men, and [some of] the women who worked on these films — Dorothy Arzner and Kathleen Collins — aren’t alive anymore. I didn’t want to bring the male directors of these films about women to have a conversation about representation. I was far more interested in thinking a little bit more outside the box and inviting talent where I could — Sigourney Weaver will be in attendance opening night for “Working Girl” — but in the absence of being able to invite somebody from the cast [or crew], I’ve tried to reach out to scholars and those who have actually worked out in the field exploring some of the double feature pairings to comment on their work that’s otherwise minimized, not discussed or undervalued.
“Working Girls: America’s Career Women on Screen” will run from February 2-March 24 at the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum at UCLA, with additional screenings at Veggie Cloud on March 8th (“Baby Boom”) and 22nd (“A History of Working Girls on Television”).