Showcasing Yale women in film, who fought for legitimacy on two fronts

Pioneering alumnae like Alexis Krasilovsky ’71 and Sandra Luckow ’87 were instrumental in advancing film as a viable art form at Yale and beyond.

Yale women interested in filmmaking had to overcome numerous roadblocks in the early years following the coeducation of Yale College in 1969. Namely, filmmaking as a practice at Yale had not yet been embraced as an art form, although students studied film, and women filmmakers were practically unheard of.

Directed by Yale Women: A Celebration of Women Filmmakers at Yale,” an event on Friday, Sept. 20 hosted by the Yale Film Study Center, will shine a light on Yale’s pioneering women filmmakers whose work provides insight into the political and cultural moment in which they studied and practiced. The event is being shown as part of the larger 50WomenAtYale150 year-long initiative commemorating women students at Yale. 

A scene from “At the Zoo” by Phyllis Chillingworth ’69 ART
A scene from “At the Zoo” by Phyllis Chillingworth ’69 ART

Filmmakers to be featured include Mary Ellen Bute ’26 DRA, one of the first women animators who enrolled in the Yale School of Drama in 1925, the department’s first year. Isabel Wilder, Thorton Wilder’s sister, was among her classmates. Bute is a celebrated figure in the experimental art world for her use of patterns, shapes and moving objects to create abstract visuals set to music, and two of her works will be shown — “Polka Graph,” in which abstract images polka to a ballet suite, and “Spook Sport,” in which ghostly images dance to music. Short films by Phyllis Chillingworth ’69 ART will include “The Legend of Rockmonotone,” a film that blurs fantasy and reality and pays homage to silent films, and “At the Zoo” based on the Simon & Garfunkel song. Also screened will be two trailers made by Carolyn Lamont ’70 B.A. as part of her M.F.A. thesis, based on the novels “Demian” by Herman Hesse and “Cat’s Cradle” by Kurt Vonnegut. Alexis Krasilovsky ’71 B.A. will show her film “End of the Art World,” which looks at the New York avant-garde art world and includes cameos from pop artists Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns.

Krasilovsky participated in the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program as an undergraduate, allowing her to spend much of her 1971 spring semester in New York City; she says she was one of the only camerapersons, male or female, allowed to film Warhol. The event will also include a screening of Sandra Luckow’s ’87 B.A. “Uptown Express,” a narrative short about an experience with her college roommate on the New York City subway. Luckow, a filmmaker and faculty member at Yale School of Art, will also moderate a discussion at the event. She is currently working on a documentary called “Warning-Danger,” about Yale assistant clinical professor and psychiatrist Dr. Bandy X. Lee, who has publicly challenged the Donald Trump’s mental fitness to serve as president. 

Andy Warhol in a scene from “End of the Art World,” by Alexis Krasilovsky ’71 B.A.
Andy Warhol in a scene from “End of the Art World,” by Alexis Krasilovsky ’71 B.A.

Film studies did not exist at Yale until Luckow’s junior year, but, she says, a vibrant cinema community flourished on campus in the 1980s, with multiple film societies. As an undergrad, Luckow says, she watched and discussed up to eight films a week on a big screen on campus. The advent of VCRs had yet to arrive. She double-majored in American studies and film studies but says she had to convince the department committee to let her make a documentary as her final project. Eventually they relented. The subject of Luckow’s film “Sharp Edges” was a skater she had trained and grew up with named Tonya Harding. “I won the Louis Sudler Prize for that film,” she says, “and Yale began to recognize film as a viable art form.”

Brian Meacham, archive and special collections manager at the Film Study Center, has been quietly building out the Yale alumni film archives over the past six years, reaching out to filmmakers to create a safe archive for their reels. “The golden age of [male] filmmaking at Yale was between 1967 and 1975,” Meacham says, citing filmmakers like former Yale instructor Murray Lerner ’48, whose film “To Be a Man” focused on the intellectual climate on campus; Academy Award-winning animator Frank Mouris ’69 B.F.A., ’69 M.F.A.; and Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Nick Doob ’69, ’73 M.F.A. It was these alumni who first connected Meacham with Chillingworth and Krasilovsky. A golden age for women in film at Yale would follow in the 1980s, says Luckow, including documentary filmmaker and Disney heiress Abigail Disney ’81 B.A.; Academy Award-winning actress and filmmaker Jodie Foster ’85 B.A.; groundbreaking filmmaker Jennie Livingston ’83 B.A.; and Academy Award-winning director Jessica Yu ’87 B.A.

Alexis Krasilovsky ’71 B.A. (center) with other Yale filmmakers
Krasilovsky (center) with other Yale filmmakers

The “Directed by Yale Women” event is a rare opportunity to see films from Yale women filmmakers in their original formats. “These are the original film prints from the time they were made,” Meacham says, noting that most are 16mm, and one is 35mm.

It is only in the last three years that filmmaking has officially been accepted as a concentration at Yale School of Art, but Luckow says interest among students has exploded, and filmmaking has become easily accessible, with students able to film on smartphones. “I’m biased, but filmmaking is the greatest liberal arts education,” Luckow says. “It’s experiential, it involves all sorts of disciplines — including science, color and composition, and ethical questions. It’s the perfect exercise.”

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