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U of M Students Respond to “One Way or Another (De cierta manera)”

And Yet She Moves: Reviewing Feminist Cinema is a series co-organized by the Walker Art Center and the University of Minnesota. As a part of the collaboration, we will be using this blog as a venue for students to respond to and discuss the films. This post presents several viewpoints and responses to One Way […]

And Yet She Moves: Reviewing Feminist Cinema is a series co-organized by the Walker Art Center and the University of Minnesota. As a part of the collaboration, we will be using this blog as a venue for students to respond to and discuss the films. This post presents several viewpoints and responses to One Way or Another (De cierta manera) which screened on Wednesday, November 16th.
 
 
Written by U of M Student, Koel Banerjee

Since this blog-post is about the last film we have watched in this series, many of the discussions that have happened during the last two weeks will find resonance here. The film form is an issue that has kept coming back in the discussions about all the films we have been viewing. And keeping that in  mind, it is only befitting that the last film we viewed in this series is a film that is as much a film that raises questions about form as it is a film that content-wise grapples with a lot of issues.

De Cierta Manera is a film that would be a very apt example of how extra-cinematic moments make their imprints on the cinematic form. It is a film about landmarks—a black woman filmmaker working on issues of class, race, and gender against the backdrop of a country after the Revolution. It brings together romance (associated with the feminine) and the documentary (commonly associated with the extreme end of realism). Commonsensical understanding would be that the purpose of fiction film and that of documentary films are diametrically opposed. So what happens when a film engages both? Does the use of documentary-like footage cushion one’s agenda more strongly than the more traditional forms associated with fiction-films would? In bringing these two filmic styles—fiction and documentary—how does this film make our compartmentalization of truth vs. make-believe problematic? What we forget is that documentaries are representations and like classic realist cinema, which seems to draw the most flak from ideology-criticism, are as prone to make their own hierarchy of truth. Perhaps, the term ‘approximation’ will be a better fit here than ‘representation’ which bears the implication of straightforwardness.

De Cierta Manera consciously avoids socialist realism. The image of the giant stone razing old buildings is poignant at several levels. First, it is a trope for a country trying to reorganize itself after a revolution, breaking down old social structures. Second, it is also a statement about the film which constantly breaks the rules of audience expectation by refusing to conform to either a strict documentary or a clear fictional code. The film constantly plays on the real vs. fiction divide, drawing on various filmic influences, viz. classical documentary, cinema verité, and fictional cinema. It makes it impossible to separate fact from fiction with fictional characters meeting real people, subplots of the real stories of real people, and with fictional characters filmed in documentary sequences. The documentary, narrated by the omniscient narrator, and almost sociological in nature, about the marginalized in Cuba sets the frame within which we watch the fictional characters operate. The film has a pedagogic intention and is not without a certain amount of didacticism. However, it does not resolve the questions it raises: whether it be questions about women’s independence, or the question of masculinity, or the question of allegiance vacillating between male friendship and the Revolution. It even leaves the fate of the lovers (where the class angle plays out best) unanswered. The film gathers its motion from several layers of dynamic oppositions (I am hesitant to use the term dialectic). Yolanda coming from a middle class background is the independent woman. However, she fails to empathize with the mother of her student who is also a working-woman in her own right, but hails from a marginalized background. Mario testifies against Humberto not because of his ethical/political commitment to the Revolution but because Humberto has accused him of being an informer—something that Mario’s code of machismo will not tolerate. At the same time, he is guilt stricken at having violated the code of male-bonding. The unruly student that Yolanda throws out of her class is given his own story—the story of a marginalized family with no father figure and a working mother, and she is chastised by her co-workers for lacking empathy. Giving all these complex layers to the characters, the film explores the different aspects of marginalization. During the discussion, Prof. Nimtz mentioned that it is much more difficult for a Cuban film to deal with class than with race or gender. What makes this film interesting is that it complicates the issues even further by linking them together in a complex network and by consciously refusing to create its own hierarchy of truth. That is probably why a film like this cannot have a clear resolution.

One could compare De Cierta Manera  with Soviet cinema to look at two modes of filmic responses to revolution. While the Soviets, on the one hand, used editing, especially the montage, for channeling audience response, i.e., the filmic response to the revolution becomes enmeshed in questions of formal aesthetics, De Cierta Manera, on the other hand, explores the issues that accompany any radical social transformation, viz. class, race and gender. At the level of content and at the formal level, it does away with the distinction between documentary and fiction and, in doing so, becomes a part of the filmic practices that stand in opposition to the Hollywood classic realist cinema and its seamless world of narrative and carefully orchestrated regime of dominant specularity.

Written by U of M student, Viviane Bain

In Sara Gomez’s film De Cierta Manera, she underscores the progression in the plot with scenes from what the revolution brought to the marginalized classes of Cuba and uniquely ties these larger realities to the lives of the characters—scenes of building demolitions, urban slums, and state-run factories are scattered throughout the film.  Her characters exist entirely in this world, blending the fictional romance between Yolanda and Mario into the larger landscape of the social condition in Havana.

Yolanda, a grade-school teacher, lets us follow the camera into the lives of the women and children of the Miraflores neighborhood in Havana.  Many of her students are unfocused, undisciplined, and unwilling to cooperate with her, leaving Yolanda in no other position but to call in their mothers.  We are able to have an intimate view into what is portrayed as a typical family living in the urban Cuba of the day.  In the cases Gomez presents, the husband/father figures in these families are either entirely absent from or minimally involved with the mothers and their children, highlighting the fact that then and now, the divorce rate in Cuba is one of the highest in the world.  These single mothers are often the sole providers for their children, which leaves them little time to direct much individual attention to any one of their children.  The combination of poverty, a lack of encouragement, and a general lack of social and economic incentive to pursue their studies is creating another generation that will mirror the life path of its parents.

In tandem with this look into the lives of Cuban women, Gomez explores the Cuban male psyche through the eyes of Mario, Yolanda’s pursuer.  He plays the seducer, showing us perhaps the beginning stages of how the mothers who spoke with Yolanda were put in the situations they are now in.  To set up a deeper understanding of the forces at play, Gomez gives us insight into some of the cultural practices held by predominantly Afro-Cuban men that blatantly defame and leave out women as a community function.  The rather cultish gatherings stem from an indigenous African religion that was practiced by slaves brought to Cuba to farm its sugar cane plantations.  The essence of its creation myth teaches that women are unworthy and not to be trusted.  The Latino men bring the tradition of machismo to Cuban culture, and a system of patriarchy is created.  The revolution in Cuba has not shaken these deep set attitudes from the minds of men and women alike, and even Mario, seemingly a protagonist in the film, shows that he is unchanging in the end in his enraged treatment of Yolanda at the movie theater.

Gomez, while giving us much food for thought, does not provide the viewer with any resolution concerning Yolanda and Mario, nor of any of the other characters we met along the way.  It is perhaps fitting, because there really has been no resolution for the Cuban people; in our post-film discussion, August Nimtz elaborated on how many of the social conditions touched upon by the film still exist today.  Just as there is no end to the dialogue between the quarrelling lovers, there has been no end to the dialogue on the social conditions of modern day Cuba; marginalism for many is still a fact of life.

 

Artist Camille Gage Responds to “!Women Art Revolution”

Lynn Hershman Leeson’s documentary !Women Art Revolution premieres this weekend, November 18-20, at the Walker Art Center. This post is Minnesota artist Camille Gage’s response to the film.

Lynn Hershman Leeson’s documentary !Women Art Revolution premieres this weekend, November 18-20, at the Walker Art Center. (An installation based on material collected for the film is also on display at the University of Minnesota’s Katherine E. Nash Gallery until December 3.) Over the next week, three area female artists, all members of the local arts organization mnartists.org, will be contributing responses to the film on the Walker Film & Video blog; after the film’s premiere screenings, mnartists.org will also publish a roundtable discussion regarding the film. This post is artist Camille  Gage’s response to the film.

The Guerrilla Girls in Lynn Hershman Leeson's "!Women Art Revolution"

A Film of Her Own

Written by Camille Gage

Lynn Hershman Leeson’s documentary !Women Art Revolution opens, Jay Leno-style, with Hershman stopping passersby on the street in New York City to ask if they can name three woman artists. Blank stares, skyward glances and much hemming and hawing ensue. No one can do it. It’s both humorous and disappointing to watch, a chortle wrapped in a shrug. Someone finally blurts out, “Georgia O’Keefe! That’s all I can do!,” as if naming women artists is an insidious form of intellectual torture to which no one should be subjected.

Ms. Hershman Leeson is certainly doing her part to change that.  !Women Art Revolution (!W.A.R.) is a 20-year labor of love. The film is broad in its reach and intimate in delivery. Utilizing both historical performance/interview footage and more recent interviews shot by the artist specifically for the film, !W.A.R. laces together both public and personal moments to capture the bold soul of the feminist and women’s art movement of late 1960s through the early ‘80’s.

I was excited to see the documentary. My mom returned to art school in the early 1970s, post-divorce, chucking her housewife frockery for bell bottoms, giant aviator glasses, and a new attitude.  The film brought me back to the art, fashion, and mood of the time, which was at once both searching and fierce—a lot like my mom, come to think of it.

!Women Art Revolution is a highly entertaining picture, and always edifying. There are solemn moments, especially surrounding the controversial death of artist Ana Mendieta at the tender age of 36, but plenty of laughter, too, as the Guerilla Girls prod, provoke and amuse. There are also moments of shrill intensity as artists argue, cajole, and grapple over the boundary lines of feminism and its impact on creative practice. And there is, of course, lots of nudity, as artists reclaim the female form, animating it in diverse performances that run the gamut of humorous, outrageous and downright scary.

But the film is not without disappointment—its exclusive focus on New York and California artists, in particular. For a film of this scope, it is a major oversight to omit mid-country artists and collectives such as the Twin Cities’ own Women’s Art Registry of Minnesota (WARM), which began in 1973 and continues as a vibrant collective to this day.  This coastal myopia is doubly ironic as it perpetuates yet another form of cultural exclusion—that of dismissing as barely relevant the careers of the many artists who live outside NYC/LA. I wish that Hershman Leeson had had the funding this project deserved, and the ability to create a more comprehensive and balanced work.

*****

Camille Gage's "Robe for Judith" (from the artist's "War, Mediated" series), 2009

As I left a special preview screening of !Women Art Revolution recently, I couldn’t help but think about Virginia Woolf. I’d read A Room of One’s Own while in art school and was deeply moved by the novel.  In the 1929 book Woolf muses on the capacity of women to produce great work—as good as the best of men. She also addresses women’s lack of economic resources and its inevitable impact on their ability to create the time and space necessary to excel in their own work.

But that was then and this is now, right?

In !W.A.R. Hershman Leeson mentions, not without irony, her own futile attempts to sell her art work. It has only been very recently in her long and productive career that she has begun to command the attention of collectors.

Which brings me back to the story of my mom: After her divorce, we moved from a nice house in what would soon become the suburbs to a small, rented place. My mom raised four kids on an office worker’s salary, with a bit of help from her family and none from my dad, who was wrestling his own demons at the time. Before long, under those circumstances, she dropped out of art school a second time and soon stopped making art altogether.  She was probably 39 when she threw in the creative towel, her potential buried under the heavy responsibilities of single parenting.

In my dining room, I have a lovely intaglio print of a melancholy Virginia Woolf. I purchased the print at the Women’s Art Institute art sale. It was a fundraiser, of course, to try to keep the program going. In the print, by Minneapolis artist Debra Bruers, the novelist gazes directly at the viewer with eyes both sad and hopeful.  As a visionary artist, Woolf likely had a good idea what the future held for creative women, and the prospects were dim.

New York Magazine’s art critic Jerry Saltz, who has taken the issue of gender equity in the arts as something of a personal mission, places the Museum of Modern Art‘s collection at 94% male artists and 6% female.  Further, according to the latest census statistics, women still earn only 77 cents of every dollar earned by their male counterparts in the work force. In fact, women’s wages have increased just a half a penny on the dollar over the past four decades—the period covered by !Women Art Revolution.

All told, Hershman Leeson’s documentary is an invaluable contribution to the art historical record and a powerful reminder of just how far women artists have come—and how terribly far there is yet to go.

Camille Gage

Camille J. Gage began her creative journey in her teens, writing music and touring with a variety of bands, including the all-female alt-rock band Tetes Noires. She later segued into public art and mixed media performance, often with a topical edge, and received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Gage’s work has been shown at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA), The Weisman Museum, and the Katherine Nash Gallery, among others. She has performed at the Walker Art Center, the MIA, and First Avenue in Minneapolis, as well as many venues in New York City including The Bottom Line, The Knitting Factory, and Folk City. Her work is in numerous individual and institutional collections, including the Walker Art Center, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Boston Scientific, The Family Housing Fund, The Minnesota Historical Society and Carleton College. Gage is also one of the founding members of Form + Content Gallery, an artist’s cooperative in Minneapolis. Her website: http://www.gageart.net/

Artist Margaret Pezalla-Granlund responds to “!Women Art Revolution”

Lynn Hershman Leeson’s documentary “!Women Art Revolution” premieres this weekend, November 18-20, at the Walker Art Center. This post is artist Margaret Pezalla-Granlund’s response to the film.

Lynn Hershman Leeson’s documentary !Women Art Revolution premieres this weekend, November 18-20, at the Walker Art Center. (An installation based on material collected for the film is also on display at the University of Minnesota’s Katherine E. Nash Gallery until December 3.) Over the next week, three area female artists, all members of the local arts organization mnartists.org, will be contributing responses to the film on the Walker Film & Video blog; after the film’s premiere screenings, mnartists.org will also publish a roundtable discussion regarding the film. This post is artist Margaret Pezalla-Granlund’s response.

Still from Lynn Hershman Leeson's "!Women Art Revolution"

If Lynn Hershman Leeson interviews you about your life and work as a woman artist, what do you talk about? The artists in !Women Art Revolution discuss their career successes and setbacks, doubts and determination, changing relationships to family, friendships, politics. These women are my role models: they’ve had long, interesting careers making work I admire. But here’s the thing I still don’t know: how did they make living as an artist actually work? How do art life and regular life actually intersect? The minutiae of everyday life might not make for an interesting film, but I am thinking more and more that these dull details are actually quite central.

Let me share three encounters that have stuck in my head for years:

— A conversation with a fellow art student who opined, “If you have to have a dining room, you’ll never be a real artist” when I expressed doubts about a raw warehouse space.

— Feeling self-conscious about cleaning my studio at CalArts, especially when a (male) studio neighbor commented on my domesticity. Repeatedly.

— Chatting with fellow grad school alums who scoffed when I said I had a full-time job. True artists, apparently, worked only part-time and didn’t worry about health care or retirement benefits.

Years after these encounters—each of which, in the moment, made me doubt I would ever be a real artist—I am still making artwork. I also live with my family in a house, where we eat at a table in the dining room. I sweep, cook, and sometimes clear the bathroom; all house and kid work is shared with my partner, which means I can spend time in my studio. I have a nearly full-time job that I love, and which provides health care and retirement benefits, not to mention a grants office that helps me find funding for my work.

Still, I have nearly constant doubts about the balance I negotiate every day between a domestic life of daycare schedules, piano recitals, and the vanpool, and the time and money I spend making my work. I have a feeling the women in this documentary—and other artists, as well—struggle with tensions between domestic and artistic life, too. In a way, it’s no different than the life/work balance we all try to negotiate, no matter our occupations. But thinking back on the experiences that have made me feel most insecure about my choice to be an artist, they are those which pit the artistic life against the banal one, the creative against the practical—the pernicious notion that if I can’t release myself from a desire for a house, a family and the security of a job, I certainly won’t be able to free myself to be an artist.

The women in !Women Art Revolution broke with convention and with their comfortable lives to be artists: they left marriages and relationships, defied expectations, scraped by to make their work. But why is this still the narrative of the ideal for an artistic life? I want to know more about the everyday life that art is supposed transcend. How did these artists make work when they were worried about money, when their parents or children were ill, when the car broke down, when they had to work overtime?

I now feel that those early encounters that provoked my doubts were based on that idealized narrative, and that a male artist wouldn’t have been asked the same questions. I wouldn’t have been criticized for sweeping, for example, if I was male; the expectation was that because I am female, evidence of domesticity or practicality merely reinforced the preconceived idea I was ill-suited to life as an artist. Well, here’s the deal: I have a house, a family, a job—and I am a working artist. And thinking that the practical details of my life will be eclipsed by the fabulous creative dimensions of my artistic life—or vice versa—is both unrealistic and dismissive.

And on a side note: I went to graduate school in the 90s at CalArts, and know the work of most of the artists featured in !Women Art Revolution through my coursework and conversations there. I feel very fortunate to have studied at a school where I learned about women like Eleanor Antin, Yvonne Rainer, Adrian Piper, Carolee Schneemann, and Judy Baca. Thanks to all the artists and educators out there who are working to make sure this doesn’t remain a lost history.

"Tugunska," by Margaret Pezalla-Granlund

Margaret Pezalla-Granlund received her MFA from the California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, California. She has exhibited locally and nationally, and her work has been included in exhibitions at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Angel’s Gate Cultural Center, and the Peabody Essex Museum. Pezalla-Granlund was recently awarded a McKnight Artist Fellowship for 2008-2009 and a Jerome Foundation Travel Study Grant for 2009. She is interested in modeling the complex spaces of the natural and built landscape on scales both macro and micro. Her website: http://www.mpezalla.com/index.html

 

“!Women Art Revolution” Blog Series with mnartists.org

In conjunction with the film series And Yet She Moves: Reviewing Feminist Cinema, the Walker Art Center will be screening Lynn Hershman Leeson’s documentary !Women Art Revolution from November 18-20. The film’s ongoing relevance will be discussed in an upcoming series of blog posts contributed by Minnesota-based female artists, all members of mnartists.org, over the next week.

Lynn Hershman Leeson's "!Women Art Revolution"

In conjunction with the film series And Yet She Moves: Reviewing Feminist Cinema, the Walker Art Center will be screening Lynn Hershman Leeson’s documentary !Women Art Revolution from November 18-20. More than 40 years in the making, edited together from hundreds of hours of interview footage with artists such as Yvonne Rainer, Judy Chicago, Miranda July, Marina Abramovic, Yoko Ono, Cindy Sherman, and many more, !W.A.R. ties the feminist art movement to the turbulent social upheavals of the 1960s and chronicles its impact on activism and alternative art over the last four decades. (An installation based on material collected for the film is also currently on display at the University of Minnesota’s Katherine E. Nash Gallery until December 3.)

The challenges and advancements detailed in !W.A.R. remain pertinent to modern artists, of course. This ongoing relevance will be discussed in an upcoming series of blog posts contributed by Minnesota-based female artists, all members of mnartists.org, an online hub for local artists and audiences catering to the development of the arts in Minnesota. Over the next week, the Walker film blog will be posting three responses to !Women Art Revolution by female artists of varying backgrounds and perspectives. Before and after the Walker’s screenings of the film this weekend, be sure to check back and peruse the artists’ entries, which we hope will spark lively discussion around a complex, endlessly-relevant film. In addition, mnartists.org will publish their own roundtable discussion regarding the film on their website, following the screenings this upcoming weekend.

!Women Art Revolution plays at the Walker Art Center on Friday, November 18, at 7:30pm; on Saturday, November 19, at 2:00pm, 4:00pm, and 7:30pm; and on Sunday, November 20, at 1:00pm and 3:00pm. Lynn Hershman Leeson will be present to introduce the film and participate in a post-screening Q&A for Friday night’s screening.

U of M Students Respond to “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles”

And Yet She Moves: Reviewing Feminist Cinema is a series co-organized by the Walker Art Center and the University of Minnesota. As a part of the collaboration, we will be using this blog as a venue for students to respond to and discuss the films . This post presents several viewpoints and responses to Jeanne […]

And Yet She Moves: Reviewing Feminist Cinema is a series co-organized by the Walker Art Center and the University of Minnesota. As a part of the collaboration, we will be using this blog as a venue for students to respond to and discuss the films . This post presents several viewpoints and responses to Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles which screened on Sunday, November 13th.

Written by U of M student (and Walker Performing Arts Online Content Specialist) Jesse Leaneagh

Jeanne Dielman is a film about everyday life, yet as Hegel said, “the familiar is not necessarily the known.” Delphine Seyrig’s performance in the title role, Chantal Akerman’s script and direction, and Babette Mangolte’s cinematography recapitulate real time for the audience of the film, but the familiarity of this time never gives us clear knowledge of the psychology of the main character. I think that is the greatest accomplishment of the film, that—as Amy Taubin wrote in ArtForum, January 2009—“because of the subjacent angle and the absence of close-ups, we never feel as if we have power over her or superior knowledge of [Jeanne Dielman’s] experience. Indeed, the film is structured as much around information to which we are denied access as it is around that which is easily observable.”

On the level of affect, the film is rare in its ability to foreground the bodily experience of the audience. In that way, the film is more like dance than film. In narrative film, time is often forgotten because of the pleasure or immersive quality of the cinema. Ivone Margulies, in the Criterion notes to the film, said, “the viewer becomes aware of his/her own body, restless and then again interested.” Alongside Jeanne Dielman’s work onscreen, I began thinking about the work I do in everyday life, the work mothers do, the ways I am indifferent to the work of others.

The film confronts the “ultimate challenge” Laura Mulvey set out in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” which is “how to fight the unconscious structured like a language…while still caught within the language of the patriarchy.” In the scenes between Jeanne Dielman and her son, long stretches of non-verbal communication structure the choreography of their exchange. Here we see Mulvey’s problem inverted: language structured like the unconscious: typical family behavior.

The final violence of the film was less surprising for me than relief; because of the film’s structure, and our bodily experience in the theater, our stake in the film is Jeanne Dielman’s own body. While still foregrounding her position within sexual/gender norms in the film, I also interpreted some of her actions through the valence of mental anxiety or even illness, which speaks perhaps to the underlying psychosis-type of repetitive order she maintains in her domestic space. Her relationship with coffee in the film, the performative illogic of coffee cups poured and rejected, foreshadow the final rupture. Leisure time for her has been emptied out, and by the second and third day impatience and distraction have overwhelmed her attempted moments of leisure. Jeanne Dielman’s confrontation with coffee, its eviscerating effect on her as practice and place-holder in everyday life, seems to be her bodily response to the transactional nature of patriarchal language, structured once again “like the unconscious.”

During the post-screening discussion, one audience member declared the film to be anti-humanist, and another argued for Jeanne Dielman to be considered as a non-person. I am not sure I agree with either of those statements. Like Henri Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life, Akerman seems to be showing that while alienation is constant and everyday, “genuine changes” also “take place…in the unmysterious depths of everyday life.” The seven final minutes of the film alone express Jeanne Dielman radical personhood. While there is mystery in Delphine Seyrig’s masterful performance, there is something utterly ordinary about the way she sits at the table with a bloody hand, breathing in and out all of her own disequilibrium in that duration. Akerman’s avoidance of sensationalism, of voyeurism, the ways she preserves Jeanne Dielman’s subjectivity intact, is feminist and humanist.

This film is beyond brilliant and if you missed it, you are lucky: this is the most widely-available of all the films in the And Yet She Moves series. Despite the film’s ability to cause “perceptual oscillation” for the viewer (according to Marguiles), I was surprised at how short the three and a half hours felt. As the house lights went up, I was thinking about how I wanted to watch it again.

Written by U of M student Nichole Neuman

With the film’s opening revealing titles and credits—text on a black background—we first hear, rather than see, the world of Chantal Akerman’s title character in Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.  The hissing of her gas stove breaks into the silence. Likewise, the close of the film mirrors the beginning, with the sounds of the Quai du Commerce intruding on Jeanne’s life and lingering with the fade to black in the end credits.  These moments of transition serve as more than just a clue of the realities of the main character’s life; rather, they illustrate her transformation.  From housewife to liberated woman?  Murderess?  On the lam?  As Professor Rabinowitz stated in her post-film lecture, the end (the murder) is not the end point and, in a way, is unimportant.  The sound transitions to and from the titles underscore this notion and state, rather bluntly, that Jeanne no longer is rooted firmly in the domestic, but has made a break from this routine and lifestyle.  The actions, not the motivation, constitute the focus of attention and do not finish with the murder, but continue beyond that moment and, indeed, beyond the scene where Jeanne sits in the dining room.

Akerman’s film does not portray a woman coming undone, but rather a destruction of a routine that has kept her captive.  The murder, though perhaps momentarily shocking, comes as no surprise.  Jeanne’s world slowly unravels, interrupting her routine and our watching.  The expansion of Akerman’s movie time[1] encourages and allows the viewer close observation.  By expanding scenes to watch Jeanne begin and complete a task, the viewer becomes inducted into her routine and the specific actions surrounding tasks.  In day one, we receive the ideal of how she ought carry out her tasks and interactions.  The second day begins with an unsettling moment—with the chair being harshly pushed in after shining Sylvain’s shoes.  Where such a mundane action would normally not register with a film viewer, the contrast with her previous carefulness with such an action is jarring enough to make us jump as if she lit a firecracker.  These moments of domestic dissonance with the standard routine accumulate: the potatoes cook too long; her hair remains unkempt after her visitor; she fails to greet her son at the door upon his arrival home.  This disruption in behavior extends to the framing and editing.  With a closer look at the dinner scene on the second day, Jeanne leaves the dining room, and, in typical fashion, the scene changes to the hallway, but instead of cutting to follow Jeanne into the kitchen to watch her fill the plate for the next course, the camera remains in the hallway, denying the expected continuity and, I would argue, emulating for the audience the restlessness and disruption of the main character.

As mentioned during the post-film discussion, Delphine Seyrig’s hair was dyed to match the woodwork in order to help the character of Jeanne more completely blend into the domestic space.  When looking at her costumes as unchanging and tied to specific actions,[2] we see how these further serve to codify her activities and how tied to responding to her environments Akerman’s character is.  Through this costuming, we can read a continuum of disruption in Jeanne’s life.  After being accustomed to the proper manner of dress, an out-of-place button forces a comment by her son.  In the final scene, the small amount of blood on an otherwise perfect, white blouse does not surprise because of that button and the mussed hair on the previous day; they prepare us for her change in behavior.  As she sits at the table after the murder, neon light flashes in a pattern across Dielman’s face, as it has throughout the film.  She is still part of the same sphere, now a space transformed.

In a film where looking forces us to focus on the mundane and habitual activities of housewives, it leaves us with one of the film’s longest shots to contemplate with the character the dissolution of a woman’s work and how she can regain personal identity and agency in making a break (accidental or intentional) with the menace of the routine.


[1] I am here consciously avoiding calling this real time, after reading the Rosen ArtForum interview with Akerman in the WAC program notes for this film.  Akerman: “Everyone thought, for example, that Jeanne Dielman was in real time, but the time was totally recomposed to give the impression of real time.”

[2] Jeanne wears a heavy, blue robe in the morning; a light, patterned housecoat for housework and cooking; a black skirt and grey sweater over an unremarkable blouse for down time and white; and functional undergarments for her professional entertaining and sleeping.

Written by U of M Student Emily Rohrabaugh

I think that it is interesting, as Nicole discussed above, that the film Jeanne Dielman depicts the unraveling of a woman’s routine, because it seems that it simultaneously builds a cinematic language based on a new time signature—that of the time of Jeanne Dielman’s daily activities.

 Jeanne Dielman, the film, seems as methodical and measured as Jeanne Dielman, the character.  Jeanne Dielman, the character, is constituted by her careful and precise domestic labor depicted in the film.  In one scene, we watch her bread thin slice of meat, a process that we learn occurs in three stages: flouring the meat, dipping the meat in egg, and then dipping the meat in breading.  Dielman wastes nothing—we learn that the meals for the week are set ahead of time in order to reuse ingredients from the previous day, and that Dielman wastes no time in her preparation method.  Likewise, Akerman wastes no time in these scenes, instead we are reoriented to the time of breading meat, a time that we quickly learn always includes washing dishes and wiping off the table. At some points these lessons in food preparation seem excruciatingly boring and almost terrifying in their power to co-opt the audience member’s time.  But at other times, this imposition of structure allows for an exploration of the pleasure of boredom.  Because this is a filmic time that wastes nothing but also omits nothing, the viewer is able to sink into Dielman’s routines and experience the comfort of boredom.

U of M Students Respond to “Surname Viet, Given Name Nam”

And Yet She Moves: Reviewing Feminist Cinema is a series co-organized by the Walker Art Center and the University of Minnesota. As a part of the collaboration, we will be using this blog as a venue for students to respond to and discuss the films . This post presents several viewpoints and responses to Surname […]

And Yet She Moves: Reviewing Feminist Cinema is a series co-organized by the Walker Art Center and the University of Minnesota. As a part of the collaboration, we will be using this blog as a venue for students to respond to and discuss the films . This post presents several viewpoints and responses to Surname Viet, Given Name Nam which screened on Saturday, November 12th.

Written by U of M student Youa Vang

In the film Surname Viet, Given Name Nam, Trinh T. Minh-na explores the issues Vietnamese women experienced during the political era in Vietnam, which corrupted the country. The film focused on the interviews of these women and the oppression they experienced which put them into silence. This film is a non-traditional documentary, with Trinh developing her own genre in this film.

During the beginning of the film, these interviews were conducted in English and the interviewees spoke in their heavily-accented English. The accent made it unclear and hard to understand. Was she trying to make us the foreigner by having all the interviewees with heavy accents? Sometimes the heavy accents were aided by the words of the women on the screen, and yet, we still struggle to listen and read. We also find that while the women are speaking, there is a translator voicing over the interview. Why does Trinh do this? Why does she choose to have them speak English and not Vietnamese?  We struggle to listen to both voices as one takes over the other voice and the other fights to gain the attention back. At times, the words that do appear may not be the words they spoke. Their facial reactions were different from the words they spoke and they seemed to not understand what they were saying.  Trinh also included beautiful background music into the film. Yet while the interviewee was talking, the song cuts her off and the English translation takes over, making the viewer focus on reading rather than listening. Once again, we struggle to read and listen at the same time. What does this mean?

As the viewers proceed with the film, one may think the women interviewed were playing their true selves. Dressed in traditional Vietnamese clothes, it’s hard not to assume it is their original role. Trinh Minh-Ha also made us think it was filmed in Vietnam but we also later learned it was set in a room in the states and she expertly used lighting to fool us. As the film progressed, we find that these women were non-professional actresses dramatizing the roles of the women interviewed. We later find them to be playing their true selves when they appeared in their “normal” clothes and spoke Vietnamese with English subtitles. Was this her intention? Why did she lead us to think the actresses had more than one identity? We later see these women in their normal roles; working at hydroelectricity plants, speaking at their child’s school, and attending pageants.

Trinh Minh-ha also draws attention to space.  She also uses still photos as visual material, but she doesn’t to allow them to stay still on the screen.  The camera scans them, moving from one point to another on the image. It doesn’t focus on one spot.  At other times the still is framed by black and then she reveals more and more of the image that had been covered. Why does she cover and reveal a photo? Is there something more to this? A picture is never just a picture; there is always something outside of the frame.

Written by U of M student Lizzy Shay

I am always very intrigued by the psychological effect of studying film versus simply viewing it. To a naive cinema guest, Surname Viet, Given Name Nam would have a fantastical impact as the viewer watched the interviews on screen unfold to reveal their true form as staged recreations. For a film student, the realization comes instead as a source of relief – the mystery is solved, and we now finally understand why we came to the film – our minds say “Aha! it is a fake documentary.”

The psychological impact of our expectations is intriguing in that it provides further insight into and curiosity about the film experience – if I had not known that a twist was coming, that this film was one piece in a series syndicated to expand my knowledge of feminism and cinema – would I have digested these interviews at face value? And furthermore, what is face value?

Surname Viet, Given Name Nam includes controversy on multiple levels. First, the content matter of the actual interviews: Vietnamese women speaking out about the difficulty of their lives and the misfortune of their oppressive society – that’s racy stuff. Initially, these testimonials seem to give insight into the state of women’s rights and gender relations at the time, and it is only when the interviews become bizarre that we realize the second degree of controversy. These interviews are staged. What an incredible concept. It seems that as long as our preconceived notions of what a documentary’s subject matter entails is not too quickly denied, we are willing to accept a fake as if it were real. We assume immediately that the plainly dressed women in a barren room are just a few brave souls, and yet we eventually realize that we’ve been fooled and that these interviews were designed to be accepted our brains even though they aren’t real. The third level of controversy is revealed to us by the director.

Trinh T. Minh-Ha explains in our film notes that these “actresses” in the film were told to present themselves as they are in everyday life, and yet for their “real” interviews these women wore dramatic outfits, excessive make up and in some cases completely fabricated their everyday surroundings. This back story may be the true point of commentary in relation to feminism as these young actresses try to present themselves as something that in reality – they are not. Attempting to fulfill social roles and be perceived a certain way, the actions of these women reinforce Laura Mulvey’s notion that women are constantly portrayed as the object and that their captured film images are a source of voyeurism. This intentional creation of a fake reality to fulfill an external set of expectations provides amazing and more honest insight into the mindset of these women, because authentic or not, the perception each woman creates becomes our reality.

This concept of reality is explored further in many contexts that might be easier for the viewer to relate to. One such instance is the bold statements of academic writings such as F is for Phony, a series of essays created to comment on the implications of fake documentaries, that include such simple axioms as “many documentaries lie to tell the truth” that can be shocking and yet obvious–by the same degree to which a film student views any film with a biased set of eyes, any interviewee is likely to bend their reality to fit their desired image: despite the honest context of a true documentary.” Another, and likely more accessible example, is the Tim Burton film, Big Fish. Although not academic and commercial, it provides insights into the fake stories a father told his son, and ultimately shows the audience that even though fiction was built into every “truth” that was told–the impression that was created was much closer to the essence of the emotions, relationships, and true story behind the tale than honestly describing the events that transcribed ever could have.

That realization is what I believe is most incredible about this film. Beyond its role in commenting on feminism I believe the true power here lies is showing the audience that what we may perceive as truth could be a complete fallacy, and yet what we know to be fake provides us a view into truth that an honest answer never could have.

U of M Students Respond to “Empty Suitcases”

And Yet She Moves: Reviewing Feminist Cinema is a series co-organized by the Walker Art Center and the University of Minnesota. As a part of the collaboration, we will be using this blog as a venue for students to respond to and discuss the films . This post presents several viewpoints and responses  to Empty […]

And Yet She Moves: Reviewing Feminist Cinema is a series co-organized by the Walker Art Center and the University of Minnesota. As a part of the collaboration, we will be using this blog as a venue for students to respond to and discuss the films . This post presents several viewpoints and responses  to Empty Suitcases which screened on Saturday, November 12th.
 
Written by U of M student Kristen Bertelson

I really feel that the message was effectively translated by having the director, Bette Gordon, talk about it before and after. It seems to be a feminist film to display the internal power women have if they want to utilize it rather than a politically feminist film. The fact that this is film is not politically motivating makes for a more inspiring narrative.

In two separate sessions of listening to her she stated that the movie was reflective of the feelings she felt of living without a “place.” The woman in the film was torn between living in the Midwest or New York but seemed to never be satisfied wherever she was. Gordon imagined that all women feel that way at some point in their career and life. In reality though, the feeling of being lost is felt by both sexes but men rarely display a sense of not belonging. But at the same time, the fact that the woman in the film had the ability to move to any place she felt the desire to shows freedom of women, which is what Bette Gordon had aimed to do throughout the film. With the sense of freedom the women of the film were displaying came the baggage of their individual pasts. Of course all women, and men for that matter, have baggage. The “empty” suitcases can be inferred as letting go of all the unnecessary thoughts and feelings of a person’s past.

After the film was over Bette Gordon talked about her desire to work with the empty spaces of the frame and put in items outside of the frame of view. The scenes of the two women taking the pictures of each other are the most apparent use of this technique. While watching that part of the film I could not help but remember the Chick Strand film of the woman in her kitchen. While watching both parts I found myself imaging what was going on past my frame of view and wishing I could see what else was happening. During Bette Gordon’s talk, she continuously stated that she aimed for viewers to be active participants. Those scenes definitely made me active in the movie “making,” or more accurately movie “imaging” process. The fact that Gordon can identify what she aims for in her movies and then achieve that ideal so seamlessly is very inspiring to all professionals.

The last topic I felt was intriguing was her use of color. I guess that hearing her talk about why/how she used color throughout her films was more inspiring than actually seeing the color in the film. She talked about the well-known “emotional colors” (i.e., red being danger or passion and blue being serene or calming) and how she used them in opposition to each other to balance out emotions. Also, in addition to balancing out emotions, she used the colors to control the emotions of the audience. I felt my emotions changed by the colors when viewing the landscapes. Landscapes give all people a very specific feeling that Bette Gordon aimed to change. She highlighted specific aspects of the frame with various colors to change the emotion of the viewer to match what she intended for development of the film.

It is interesting to think about what I would have thought about the film had I not heard everything directly from the director. Unfortunately I think I would have been much more confused by the point she was trying to make about women because the women in this film seemed to have a hard time following through with their radical thoughts. The lack of follow-through does not help the case for powerful women. I do appreciate that she shows women taking initiative towards acting on something they want, which in this movie is moving cities to find a “place.”

 

Written by U of M student Emily Rohrbaugh

Last Saturday the Walker Art Center screened Empty Suitcases (1980), Bette Gordon’s richly textured meditation on viewership and the representation of women.  On Friday night the Walker screened Gordon’s better known film, Variety, her 1984 debut feature about a woman who works at a pornographic theater. After talking about Variety’s release in response to debates about pornography in feminist communities in the 80s, it was interesting to see how Empty Suitcases seemed to be working on a much broader subject of attempting to make spectators question his or her relationship to a woman on film.  In Variety, the main character is a woman named Christine and the film follows her through her own epistemological development as she slowly embraces the voyeuristic gaze available to her through pornography and the theater.  In contrast, Empty Suitcases structurally composes a kind of ‘everywoman’ though couched in a narrative about an individual.

Empty Suitcases, as Gordon explained in her question-and-answer session after the screening, has Midwest roots.  The film was partially funded by a Jerome Foundation grant and filmed in Madison, where she had recently finished her MFA. The film is about a woman trying to decide whether to live in the Midwest or New York, a premise loosely based on Gordon’s own experience moving between her first teaching job in Milwaukee and New York. In the film, the main character travels from Chicago to New York which we hear about from an off-screen voice narrating the main character’s progress and emotional state.  In an early scene, we see a woman packing and unpacking her suitcase in her bedroom, a process that Gordon said she went through as she was trying to find her place and make a decision.

Gordon explained that the film was made over a long period of time as she went though this process.  In the film, different women play the main character. Gordon’s choice to use multiple women to play the main character, which she explained, was meant to enact a Brechtian disruption of the viewer’s identification with the main character. Gordon also referenced both Luis Buñuel and Yvonne Rainer as progenitors of this use of multiple actors to play one character as a kind of tactic to reorient the spectator to a new experience of viewing film.

Empty Suitcases seems like a series of experiments that are constantly challenging the notion of passive spectatorship.  Structurally, the film seems to be a series of vignettes for the viewer to explore visually while a narrative voice often slowly advances the narrative of the main character moving back and forth between Chicago and New York, through the frustration of losing a teaching job, breaking up with a boyfriend, and contemplating bombing a building owned by the university.  The possibility of violent destruction of space seems to consistently undermine the sense that the story is moving toward a kind of resolution or stability.  In one section, the narrator describes how to make a bomb.  The off-screen voice delivers these instructions in the same even tone as when the narrator describes riding the Amtrak through New Jersey, or when narrating a series of banal tourist postcards from New York.  This steady narrative is interspersed with sections of the film with sound excerpted from television programs, the energetic music of X-Ray Spex, the Talking Heads, and Billie Holiday.  These are sounds that seem to make up a textured description of this psychological moment.  This collage of sounds seems to act as counterpoint to the long (in duration) shots and steady camera.

As evidenced by the question-and-answer session after the screening, many viewers are fascinated by the way that Empty Suitcases seems like a kind of time capsule showing a lost New York of the 1970s.  Gordon’s still photographs of the landscape of New York seem alien in comparison to the city today.   One photograph showed an open lot across the street from her loft.  This quasi-documentary quality allows us to read Empty Suitcases as itself a historical object open to investigation.  Additionally, the film contains cameo appearances by the artists Nan Goldin and Vivian Dick, and Wooster Group member Ron Vawter. Even the brash punk music by X-Ray Spex sounded melancholy to me as I recalled the recent death of Poly Styrene, the group’s front woman. There is something nostalgic about these images, these depictions of empty lots.  The film shows us a feminism that could be constructed out of the raw materials available to a young filmmaker in a city full of possibility.

U of M Students Respond to Chick Strand: In Retrospect

And Yet She Moves: Reviewing Feminist Cinema is a series co-organized by the Walker Art Center and the University of Minnesota. As a part of the collaboration, we will be using this blog as a venue for students to respond to and discuss the films . This post presents several viewpoints and responses  to Chick […]

And Yet She Moves: Reviewing Feminist Cinema is a series co-organized by the Walker Art Center and the University of Minnesota. As a part of the collaboration, we will be using this blog as a venue for students to respond to and discuss the films . This post presents several viewpoints and responses  to Chick Strand: In Retrospect which screened on Thursday, November 10th.
 
 
Written by U of M student Denise Johnson

Mosori Monika

I always find anything on other Indigenous cultures extremely interesting. The issues surrounding what a lot of us consider to be invasion or as in this short film, whitewashing, can be intense. As always there is the premise that the indigenous population needs to be saved from their dirty, heathen ways. How can we be sure that these are the true words of the people viewed in the film? Just as there are scandals with the photoshopping of images, voiceovers can also be wondered at. Really, we only see one point of view, that the missionaries are good and help the poor natives. Where is the opposing view?

The film is a wonder in that we get to see how things were in these indigenous peoples world at a time that was truly not that long ago and yet seems like a million years ago. Seeing them living their lives barely touched or tainted by the outside world is beautiful.

Kristallnacht

I found this short film to be strange but also very hypnotizing. While not really understanding the presence of the people in the water, the beauty of the light on the water and the background sounds of frog, bird and wildlife was calming. Enchanting.

Written by U of M student Christopher Greiner

Mosori Monika (1970) and Soft Fiction (1979), though classed as “ethnographic” films, might be seen as ethnographic commentary on the ethnographic and filming processes themselves.  These films operate, as it were, at a meta-ethnographic level, at once depicting and interrogating the ethnographic method—its art and its ethos.  The categorizing brain wants to place Chick Strand’s films within an analytic and viewing frame, to render the films classifiable and interpretable (not necessarily a bad thing).  Such categorizing is of course part and parcel of the ethnographic method (again, not in itself a bad thing, though a practice certainly not without its problems or limitations).  To identity the films as “objects/subjects” of the analytic/aesthetic gaze and thereby to locate the films within designated genres is to take pleasure in, if not the films themselves, then at least in the feeling or sensation of having comprehended some site and structure of meaning, of having deciphered some code of the way and life of the “other.”  The films, however, resist such efforts to categorize, a vexing limitation that is by no means unknown to the ethnographer or cultural critic.  Ethnography, like film-making (documentary, avant-garde, or otherwise), is not simply a descriptive act but is inherently an interpretive process.  It is, in other words, at once production and projection.  Interpretation is the focus problem that it will be my purpose to examine in this post.

Strand’s films strike me as being deeply concerned with questions of interpretation, representation, narrative, voice (who speaks, how, and for whom), authority, “authenticity,” and the always ambivalent negotiation of aesthetic and cultural boundaries, forms and formations.  What concerns me most for the present purpose is the more theoretical question of the “ethnographic film,” and the possibilities and problems that such a genre, medium and mode of representation present.  To this purpose, it is essential to have a clear understanding of what ethnography is and is not, and what relationship film has to the ethnographic project—all essential (though not, let us hope, essentialist) questions confronting both director and viewer of Chick Stand’s ethnographic films.

Ethnography, following Clifford Geertz who borrows a phrase from Gilbert Ryle, is “thick description.”  That is, it is an interpretive act and process that involves working through myriad structures and layers of meaning, cultural and symbolic codes, rituals, performances, etc.  Ethnography, in other words, is not simply a scientific discipline but is a cultural act that is circumscribed and performed in a particular way and in accordance with certain prevailing codes, assumptions, and norms.  It is, in short, an act of interpretation—creative (or not), constructive and (especially in the case of Strand’s films) deconstructive.  Such a view of ethnography involves as much reading (in every sense of the act) as it does analysis: inscription as much as “de-scription.”  “Doing ethnography,” Geertz explains, “is like trying to read (in the sense of ‘construct a reading of’) a manuscript—foreign, faded, full of ellipses, incoherencies, suspicious emendations, and tendentious commentaries, but written not in conventionalized graphs of sound but in transient examples of shaped behavior.”[1]  Some correspondence may well be discerned between Geertz’s description and Strand’s films.  It is important to note that Strand’s films are not, strictly speaking, projects of ethnography.  These are not ethnographic films proper.[2]

Ethnographic film takes as its primary goal the recording of an ethnic group for the purpose of anthropological analysis and for greater cross-cultural understanding.  Crucial to any ethnographic project is the situating of the subject and people studied in their social and cultural context.  This situating does not occur in any clear and explicit way in Chick Strand’s films.  This cultural contextualization is notably absent in Mosori Monika, “Strand’s first overtly ethnographic film.”[3]  One might see this as a problem, and particularly if one is an ethnographer.  We learn absolutely nothing about the tribe depicted—the Warao Indians in Venezuela—except that they are an indigenous population and they are subject to the colonizing, missionary gaze and to the “reconditioning” and “salvation” efforts that invariably follow.  I point out this problem not so much to criticize Strand’s film—which, to be self-indulgently honest, I rather enjoyed—but rather to call attention to the need to take seriously, whether one is a filmmaker or an anthropologist, the cultural context, codes, and conditions that will inevitably shape the powerful interpretive act that takes place under the gaze of the camera—whichever way the lens might turn or be turned.

As ethnographic art, Strand’s films make powerful and creative statements.  To what extent her films further deeper cultural understanding of her subject(s) is a matter I humbly leave for interpretation.


[1] Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books / Perseus Books Group, 1973, pp. 6-10.

[2] For a discussion and critique of the “ethnographic film” project, see Karl Heider, Ethnographic Film. Austin: U of Texas P, 1976.

[3] Maria Pramaggiore, Women’s Experimental Cinema: Critical Frameworks. Duke UP, 2007.  Excerpted in Walker Art Center program notes for “Chick Strand: In Retrospect” (2011).

 

 
Written by U of M Student Emily Rohrabaugh

The Chick Strand: In Retrospect evening was an opportunity to see rarely screened works by a co-founder of Canyon Cinema, the filmmaker Chick Strand.  Canyon Cinema was a California-based film society praised by P. Adams Sitney in his canonical history of avant-garde American cinema, Visionary Film, as a key site for screening and distributing avant-garde film beginning in the early 1960s, though he cites the film collective as the creation of Bruce Bailey three times in his book, on pages 180, 183, and 330 with no mention of Chick Strand).  In some ways, the four short films screened at the Walker seem to fit in the story of structuralist film and avant-garde American film from the 1960s and 1970s; it was a pleasure to watch the way that Strand used film to capture how the camera allows us to see beyond the capacity of the naked eye.

But, as noted in the earlier blog posts, there was a tension between the formal aspects of the cinema and interpersonal relationships between the filmmaker and her subjects. In the film Strand shot interviews with a stationary camera and allowed the women being interviewed to move in and out of the shot, a decision which seemed to make evident the position of the camera between the person being interviewed and the filmmaker sitting in the room.  While Soft Fiction seems to be an exercise in collaborative storytelling between Strand and the women who tell stories in front of a stationary camera, I was intrigued by the way that the camera acts as a protagonist in this setting with an almost aggressive personality.

U of M Students Respond to “Variety”

And Yet She Moves: Reviewing Feminist Cinema is a series co-organized by the Walker Art Center and the University of Minnesota. As a part of the collaboration, we will be using this blog as a venue for students to respond to and discuss the films . This post presents several viewpoints and responses  to  Variety […]

And Yet She Moves: Reviewing Feminist Cinema is a series co-organized by the Walker Art Center and the University of Minnesota. As a part of the collaboration, we will be using this blog as a venue for students to respond to and discuss the films . This post presents several viewpoints and responses  to  Variety which screened on Friday, November 11th.
 
Written by University of Minnesota student Rashid Ali

Bette Gordon’s Variety is a film that addresses the censorship of pornography with respect to women. It’s a movie that opens the door for a genre that attempts to explore women’s sexuality. Gordon was a pioneer for this and is very well known. I enjoyed this picture more than Daisies because for one there was more dialogue.  The characters in the film felt real and productive. I fell in love with Jose who epitomized this outgoing really funny hard-working guy who is protective of main character. An aspect of the movie that I found to be really interesting was the role reversal of conventional noir movies. The central character is this movie is female who takes on the role of an investigator. She’s also voyeuristically following this gentleman who is a regular customer at the adult movie theater where she works. Ultimately, she ends up calling him to set up a meeting at a specified location. In that climatic scene, the two characters never meet. Instead we see a camera shot of an empty street corner at night. In the Q&A after the film, Gordon touched on this a little bit saying that she thoroughly enjoys the way in which her audience takes that scene and projects their interpretive scenarios onto that cliffhanger scene. She also spoke about her experience shooting Variety in New York at a time when this great city was more fascinating than it is now. I learned a lot from her passion for collaborative work as she described it. I love how close she is with people she works with.

Written by U of M Student Tomnema Xiong

Variety is a unique film starring Sandy McLeod as Christine, a beautiful woman who is looking for a job and ends up working at a movie booth selling tickets to customers who wants to watch a pornography film. Often, Christine would take a sneak peak at the pornography movies that are being played during her break. When she is with her boyfriend, Mark, she would describe the scenes of the pornography movies that are played. One night Christine meets a guy name Louie and is fascinated by him; to the extent that she thinks Louie is a suspicious. Christine follows Louie around learning quite a few things by about him.

This film is special in the way that it exploits and embraces the common stereotypes of man and woman at that time and turns them upside down. By the brief summary from the film note, it is clear that this film embraces how woman are perceived by men; an object of pleasure and just something to look at. With all the glowing lights for nude women and posters of nude women scattered throughout the film, it is obvious that Gordon is trying to send out a message of women being degraded by men. Besides Christine, for the most part, the film is greatly populated by men, and men reading porn magazines and watching porn, degradation of women is expressed in an abundant in this film and that women are an object of pleasure.

In the very beginning of Variety, it starts out with the camera zooming onto a slim, boney woman swimming in the pool. The beginning of the film suggests the direction that Gordon was going towards. In one of the scenes in Variety, Christine is at the bar with her friends and her friend tells her of how she went to jail because she got caught by undercover polices for prostitution. Even now, prostitution is arguably one of the top actions that cause people to be looked down upon. There is just scene after scene of the degradation of women, either by nude posters, nude magazines or even pornography, women are clearly the victim in this movie.

By embracing this degradation of women in this film, it sets up the perfect way for Gordon to exploit it, and thus the heroine of the film Christine. Christine, instead of being like the other female characters in the film, is more like a male character. She plays pool, lift weights and exercises, she watches the porn films, read the magazines and follows Louie around doing detective work rather than being stalked. The attitude that is shown through Christine proves that women aren’t just mere objects to be gazed upon; they are strong capable human beings too. Christine walks into a porn store and she is the only female there yet none of the guys notices that she is a girl, almost as if she were just another guy. What strikes me the most was the last two scenes before the end of the film. The second to the last scene was a group of girls at a bar talking about the things they would do to and for a guy. Then the scene right afterwards was of Christine talking to Louie and with the tone of her voice sounding almost like she is blackmailing him. Variety is definitely an interesting film to watch.

Written by U of M student Michael Lee

In Bette Gordon’s Variety the most significant element to be noted is Gordon’s reversal of ‘the gaze’ and the subject and object of the film. In the beginning of the film, we are shown the male scum of New York through Christine’s job at the pornographic movie theatre, as well as through dialogue where supporting female characters describe their work as exotic dancers or having recently been propositioned and objectified by male employers or patrons of their place of employment. Immediately, the structure of our patriarchal society, where men are the subjects and women are the objects, is portrayed. Gordon cleverly plays off the main theme of voyeurism through pornography and men as subjects by having the main female character, consistently objectified while working at the theatre, begin to follow one of the male patrons, thus reversing institutionalized patriarchy and misogyny within the film as the female character becomes the subject and the male character becomes the object.

Where the reversal may fall short is in the lack of interaction between the female subject and the male object. In the patriarchal object/subject relationship set up in the beginning of the film, there is a very physical and close and intense presence of the objectification, while the latter experience is much more distant and the object is never made aware (until perhaps the final unresolved scene) that he was being objectified. How could Christine’s objectification through voyeurism gone further to reverse the patriarchal system of objectification and done so in a way that made the male character objectified, but also objectified while being aware of this objectification?

Written by U of M Student Denise Johnson

I loved this film! I liked the exploration of how a woman tries on the idea of sexuality via porn. The grittiness and shockingly not ‘nice girl’ portrayal within this film was a rebellious refresher when compared to some of the other films that seemed to almost stifle women’s sexuality. After seeing all the films this one definitely felt like while sexuality was still being explored, it was absolutely more acceptable. The debate on porn and for-women or not-for-women seems also to be coming to the forefront. So maybe it seemed a little weird that she was stalking her maybe sort of boyfriend/acquaintance/date/customer? I still loved it.

U of M Students Respond to “Riddles of the Sphinx”

And Yet She Moves: Reviewing Feminist Cinema is a series co-organized by the Walker Art Center and the University of Minnesota. As a part of the collaboration, we will be using this blog as a venue for students to respond to and discuss the films . This post presents several viewpoints and responses  to Riddles of […]

And Yet She Moves: Reviewing Feminist Cinema is a series co-organized by the Walker Art Center and the University of Minnesota. As a part of the collaboration, we will be using this blog as a venue for students to respond to and discuss the films . This post presents several viewpoints and responses  to Riddles of the Sphinx which screened on Saturday, November 5th.
Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen’s “Riddles of the Sphinx”
Written by University of Minnesota student Ashley Monk 

Laura Mulvey’s Riddles of the Sphinx

How do you talk about a film that is strictly grounded in theory, psychoanalysis, and a critique of both of these?  Perhaps you don’t—perhaps you make a film about it instead.  We can sit and talk, and endlessly discuss Laura Mulvey’s feminist film theory, but that is much less interesting and perhaps even less helpful than making a film that attempts to deploy the new language and new structures that Mulvey points to in her foundational essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975).

What is the meaning or purpose of part three “Stones” in Riddles of the Sphinx?  This section is a montage sequence of found footage of the Egyptian Sphinx, which is rather unclear, due to the use of zooming in and out, and the extreme distortion of images due to the movement of the camera, the extreme close-ups, and the graininess of the film.  In this section there is also a focus on the mouth of the Sphinx.  What is the purpose of this section?  Is it to call attention to the voice of the Sphinx, who narrates the rest of the film?  What does this voice stand for—what does it represent, or what is it pointing to?  The Sphinx (according to the Greek mythologies) speaks in riddles, and these riddles become the source of the listener’s demise (when they are unable to figure out or answer the riddles correctly).  Mulvey also speaks to the importance of the positioning of the Sphinx—outside of the city, apart from it, “confirming women’s sense of exclusion and suppression (Mulvey in section two of Riddles of the Sphinx).”

  What do we make of Mulvey’s final statement in section two?

To the patriarchy, the Sphinx as woman is a threat and a riddle, but women within patriarchy are faced with a never-ending series of threats and riddles—dilemmas which are hard for women to solve, because the culture within which they must think is not theirs.  We live in a society ruled by the father, in which the place of the mother is suppressed.  Motherhood and how to live it, or not to live it, lies at the roots of the dilemma.  And meanwhile the Sphinx can only speak with a voice apart, a voice off.

What is the relationship of this statement to the montage sequence that follows this statement?  Is she bringing us back in time, back to the roots of the symbolic order of the contradictions or dilemmas facing women in a patriarchal society?  Does this montage sequence successfully do that—or more importantly, does this montage sequence do anything at all?  Perhaps the montage sequence is open to interpretation and exists as a section in which the viewer is forced to make their own assumptions based on their own psychological state of mind, which seems to be aided or suggested by the distorted images which appear on the screen, reminiscent or Rorschach ink blots, and thus ultimately pointing back to the seizure of psychoanalysis for new purposes.

Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen's "Riddles of the Sphinx"

 Written by University of Minnesota student Denise Johnson

Visual Pleasure? I found the film to be the opposite of what can typically construed as pleasurable even though visually it was interesting. Personally I found interpretations in various scenes within the movie that I can see relate back to Mulveys psychoanalysis of cinema, feminism and attempting to move the viewer to think about the issues. The woman’s discontent with all that womanhood is supposed to be is apparent in the poetic lyrical ramblings that continue throughout the film. Images that accompany seem to shout questioning of woman’s place in the world. Within the scene in the child’s bedroom, we see the tools of a sort of social/cultural/political propaganda: dollhouses showing doll children and homes, kitchen toys and bedtime stories that will indoctrinate the daughter into her proper place in the world. Can the child be viewed as controlled or imprinted into perpetuating woman’s discontent with her place under patriarchy rules? And then could the child be considered the possible one to break these rules and change the future of social roles? This film definitely invokes a series of questions.

I heard some say that they had no idea what the movie was about or did not find any meaning in the bizarre images. Does that mean that everyone who sees the movie has to have some psychoanalytic skills to understand the messages of this film? I don’t believe so but one does need to be attuned to what Mulvey is trying to get across. So if the background is not read and understood, then yes, I can see how it could be not understood. If one short sentence could summarize the underlying meaning of the film to make someone understand it, then perhaps “Analyzing woman’s place under patriarchy” or “The myths of motherhood” would work. Reading between the lines throughout the film, reading more into the images shown you see a struggle of how women have to juggle motherhood, marriage (or lack thereof) all while trying to fit into the predetermined mold that has been made for them. We contort, bend and ply ourselves to others idea of what we should be all the while giving ‘visual pleasure’ to the viewer. The puzzle in the film seemed to say that woman is always trying to fit into a premade set of parameters that belong to someone else.

The background music for this film was somewhat surreal and at times, jolting to the senses. The music makes the monologue and the imagery seem stranger and yet frantically important at the same time. Professor Mowitt proclaimed “The rhythmic patterning draws attention to eh image” and this could not be truer for this film. Where it may have put an unknowing audience to sleep, the score holds your eyes captive to what is unfolding on the screen. When the music is silent between texts, the lack also holds your attention. I cannot imagine any other sounds that would compliment this movie any better.

After reading another review, I am in total agreement with the comment, “Laura Mulvey is an acquired taste that we grow accustomed to.”

Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen's "Riddles of the Sphinx"

Written by U of M student Youa Vang

I didn’t quite understand the meaning of the Sphinx at the beginning when it was zooming in and out of the lip of the Sphinx. Was it trying to tell the viewers something? Why did it focus on the lip for at least 5-7 minutes, and nothing else? I find myself feeling a little disturbed and agitated because it focused on this old grainy photo of the Sphinx and nothing else.

After this long scene, it switched to a kitchen where the camera made a 360 degree panning shot, recording a day with the character Louise and her daughter. Louise cooked, cleaned, and fed her daughter. When the camera rolled around again, she cooked breakfast for her husband, where you can see him standing there eating his food. All the shots in this part of the film are recorded in a 360 panning shot.

In this film, you can hear the voice of the Sphinx almost narrating the scenes. Then you see Laura Mulvey appear on screen reading from her notes. You also hear voices of the characters. Beware because this film can create motion sickness. I had a horrible migraine after watching the film.

Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen's "Riddles of the Sphinx"

Written by U of M Student Heidi Zimmerman

I very much appreciate the way in which the above posts explore the thematic material in Mulvey’s film.  Yet, in viewing the film (finally, after having read Mulvey’s essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” many times), the thematic material that the film takes up—single motherhood, women’s desire for women, childcare, housework, waged work, unions, and of course the relationship between mother and daughter—was less interesting to me than the formal ways in which the film interrupts the spectator’s expectations and frustrates the spectator’s desires vis-à-vis narrative cinema and visual pleasure.  Although the political and social issues the film lays out have ongoing salience in the context of present-day heteropatriarchy and economic inequality and, of course, demand analytical and political attention, I did not feel that the treatment of these issues in the film inspired me toward action or revolutionary thinking.  The didacticism had a distancing effect.  The narrative, for me, almost functioned as a backdrop for the formal experiments of the film.  The dialog was often difficult to make out, the action was “passed over” by the ostensibly unmotivated gaze of a steadily panning camera, the screens of narrative text were seemingly snipped out of longer pieces of prose, with no regard for the beginnings and ends of sentences or meanings.  If something “arrested” my gaze (or my ear or my interest otherwise), the film was utterly unsympathetic.  Yet as the film went on, I was able to settle into the aesthetics of the film.  It became almost funny.   This was especially so when the narrative part of the movie ended.  The film concludes with what seemed to me like an experiment in visual pleasure that gestured away from narrative and women’s lack, away form the purposive desires of the oedipal narrative, toward imagining a kind of utopian economy of looking.   While in traditional Hollywood film, for Mulvey, the image of woman coded as to-be-looked-at breaks the flow of the narrative.  But here no attempt is made to maintain narrative flow or coherence.   For example, in a static shot, a blue labyrinth game fills the screen.  The shot itself is beautiful.  But what was most interesting to me was that the audience got swept up in the drama of the quivering bead of mercury struggling through the maze, placing our own desires on this animated inanimate object—for example, the desire to have it reach the center of the labyrinth, to be reunited with the other beads of mercury into a single, larger bead—desires which couldn’t be but projections.  The mercury has no desires of its own.  Yet the audience was more amused during this part of the film than any other.  I also have thought about the role of the static shots of women juggling and doing acrobatics in the final scenes.  I wondered whether these aimed to imagine, also, a form of pleasure in looking that ceased to be about woman’s lack or about secret looking (the voyeurism of the oedipal narrative that Mulvey argues is central to heteropatriarchy in her essay).  How might the presentation of compositionally beautiful shots of skillful performers, which appear to have little relationship to narrative, speak to Mulvey’s arguments about visual pleasure?

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