As society changes, so do its representations; yet sometimes those representations themselves can effect change. The work of criticism can bring works to the forum for discussion and can show how these works articulate our concerns in unexpected ways.
Many of the films I have chosen for discussion reenact threshold moments in the acts of perception of the societies that produced them. They dramatize the indecision that comes before change—what I would call an experience of liminality (from the Latin limen, or threshold), of being in between two spaces, two states of mind, two systems of representation. By reenacting that uncertainty, the films often encourage the spectator to experience a change of mind.
The idea of stretching film beyond the conventional limits of cinematic language, of representation, is fundamental to the concerns I have tried to articulate throughout this volume, whose subtitle is derived from an essay by the French author and critic Philippe Sollers. Sollers writes that “literature’s goal is not the constitution of objects, but a ciphered relation, a sliding which by opening up different subjects outside their limits reveals objects of thought and of the world.”1 I have tried, in the first sections of this book, to focus on films which attempt to go beyond some of these limits. I have argued that the work demanded of the viewer in many of these films is that of acquiring new forms of language and representation to express new content.
Language does not necessarily bind us to what already exists if we use it in this transformative way. Since I wrote these chapters, a few films have, in their own way, contributed to this stretching of our cognitive horizon. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing moves outside of the race and class usually represented in Hollywood films while managing to engage the sympathy and identification with characters that typifies the entertainment cinema. His practice of cinematic language resembles the tightly structured gags of Chaplin features (such as Modern Times), in which the characters move in and out of the camera’s field of vision according to a theme and variation structure. The result is an unusual blend between minute observation and a panoramic overall view of one day on the neighborhood block—a day that brings urgent social issues to the fore. A World Apart, based on Ruth First’s 117 Days, allows the spectator to experience the agonized choices that face everyone living under apartheid. For once, a woman protagonist, seen through the eyes of her teenage daughter, is central to this film. In conclusion, then, I offer some thoughts for future developments in cinema that are to be hoped for.
In the last two sections of this book, I have focused on certain problems relating to the representation of women. We need films whose content reflects the experience of women. It should simply be an accepted fact that women’s lives are as interesting as men’s lives. In an article in Gender Studies, Norine Voss has noted that women’s autobiographies form a largely ignored body of literature.2 This situation is parallelled by the lack of filmed versions of the lives of historical women. Part of the acceptance of women as subjects of fiction will have to consist in the rediscovery of actual women’s histories. As Gertrud Koch has stated, “it is this recognition of woman having her own history which is the precondition above all others for perceiving woman as subject.”3 In A Choice of Heroes, Mark Gerzon discusses (and shows the problems with) a panoply of male types that have served as role models for the white American male (these include, for instance, the frontiersman, the soldier, the breadwinner, the expert, and the father).4 Films, which play such a large role in determining our role models, might offer women “a choice of heroines.”
Films must allow characters of different genders full rights in the exploration of the diegetic space. Otherwise women spectators will continue to be caught in what Silvia Bovenshen has called the “transference,” in which they either identify with the white masculine point of view or adopt the masochistic/narcissistic position of identifying with whatever is defined as “other” in the film by the dominant masculine representation.5 For instance, Judith Fetterley has coined the word “immasculation” for the woman’s incorporation of the male point of view, in which “intellectually male, sexually female, one is in effect no one.”6 But this syndrome could be extended to anyone in the audience who feels left out of the group that dominates.
Neither men nor women should be limited to being two-dimensional “screen” characters. I think it important that men be offered the chance to identify with female mediators of space and narrative causality, just as women have traditionally had to identify with male ones. And just possibly, men might also enjoy films in which women are allowed to look and to return the look.7
Films should give a more balanced view of gender that does not do violence to the spectator’s self-concept. Getting away from the stereotypical portrayal of women means, as Teresa de Lauretis has stated, that films will have to represent the differences within women as well as the differences among women. Films should not assume that all women spectators are the same, or that any given film portraying a woman character’s subjectivity speaks for all women.8
What I have just said about the presentation of women in film applies to that of race, class, and culture as well. These will be the major issues of the 90s. We will need strong creative statements about our world if we are to understand it and understand how to change it. In some chapters I have described points of resistance to convention that could serve as guideposts to future filmmakers. Zazie’s disruptive language, dual narration that lets the spectator in on the thoughts of the characters, the marking of the arranger as nonwhite and non-male, performative space—all these are partial solutions to the need for films that operate outside of conventional norms. Remaking films while changing the sex of their protagonists (as I suggest in the case of E.T. and The Wizard of Oz) would be one way to uncover the sexual politics of familiar narratives.
The above strategies have the virtue of working within the framework of narrative film rather than denying the spectator the pleasure of following and becoming involved in a story. They may become enabling narratives that participate in the process of cognitive change in society. As Joanne Frye states in her remarkable study of women’s novels, a work that problematizes narrative conventions can function “not only as cognitive instrument but also as recognitive instrument.”9 Stephen Heath makes a similar argument when he urges radical filmmakers to work “at the limits of narrative within the narrative film, at the limits of its fiction of unity.”10 This working away at the borders of intelligibility, in the space where meaning is created and not just faithfully reproduced, is central to the practice of frame-breaking as I have tried to articulate it in these pages. And, since our language reflects our reality, its transformation can help to transform our world as well.