Whatever is unnamed, undepicted in
images, whatever is omitted from
biography, censored in collections of
letters, whatever is misnamed as
something else, made difficult-to-come-by,
whatever is buried in the memory by the
collapse of meaning under an inadequate
or lying language—this will become, not
merely unspoken, but unspeakable.
The situation for women working in filmmaking and film criticism today is precarious. While our work is no longer invisible, and not yet unspeakable, it still goes dangerously unnamed. There is even uncertainty over what name might characterize that intersection of cinema and the women’s movement within which we labor, variously called “films by women,” “feminist film,” “images of women in film,” or “women’s films.” All are vague and problematic. I see the lack of proper name here as symptomatic of a crisis in the ability of feminist film criticism thus far to come to terms with the work at hand, to apply a truly feminist criticism to the body of work already produced by women filmmakers. This crisis points to a real difference between the name “feminist” and the other names that have traditionally been applied to film (i.e., “structuralist” for certain avant-garde films or “melodrama” for certain Hollywood films).2 “Feminist” is a name which may have only a marginal relation to the film text, describing more persuasively the context of social and political activity from which the work sprang. Such a difference is due, on the one hand, to a feminist recognition of the links tying a film’s aesthetics to its modes of production and reception; and, on the other hand, to the particular history of the cinematic field which “feminist” came to designate—a field in which filmmaking-exhibition-criticism-distribution-audience have always been considered inextricably connected.
The great contribution of feminism, as a body of thought, to culture in our time has been that it has something fairly direct to say, a quality all too rare today. And its equally crucial contribution, as a process and style, has been women’s insistence on conducting the analysis, making the statements, in unsullied terms, in forms not already associated with the media’s oppressiveness toward women. It is this freshness of discourse and distrust of traditional modes of articulation that placed feminist cinema in a singular position vis-a-vis both the dominant cinema and the avant-garde in the early 70s. By the “dominant,” I mean Hollywood and all its corresponding manifestations in other cultures; but this could also be termed the Cinema of the Fathers. By the “avant-garde,” I mean the experimental/personal cinema, which is positioned, by self-inclusion, within the art world; but this could also be termed the Cinema of the Sons. Being a business, the Cinema of the Fathers seeks to do only that which has been done before and proved successful. Being an art, the Cinema of the Sons seeks to do only that which has not been done before and so prove itself successful.
Into such a situation, at the start of the 70s, entered a feminist cinema. In place of the Fathers’ bankruptcy of both form and content, there was a new and different energy; a cinema of immediacy and positive force now opposed the retreat into violence and the revival of a dead past which had become the dominant cinema’s mainstays. In place of the Sons’ increasing alienation and isolation, there was an entirely new sense of identification—with other women—and a corresponding commitment to communicate with this now-identifiable audience, a commitment which replaced, for feminist filmmakers, the elusive public ignored and frequently scorned by the male formalist filmmakers. Thus, from the start, its link to an evolving political movement gave feminist cinema a power and direction entirely unprecedented in independent filmmaking, bringing issues of theory/practice, aesthetics/meaning, process/representation into sharp focus.
Since the origin and development of feminist film work are largely unexamined, the following chronology sketches some of the major events of the 70s in North America and Great Britain. Three sorts of information are omitted as beyond the scope of this survey: (1) European festivals and publications, although some have been extremely significant; (2) beyond the first entry, the hundreds of films made by women during the decade; and (3) the publication in 1969-70 of key feminist writings such as Sexual Politics, The Dialectic of Sex, and Sisterhood Is Powerful, which must be remembered as the backdrop and theoretical impetus for these film activities.
1971: Release of Growing Up Female, Janie’s Janie, Three Lives, and The Woman’s Film: first generation of feminist documentaries.
1972: First New York International Festival of Women’s Films and the Women’s Event at Edinburgh Film Festival. First issue of Women & Film magazine; special issues on women and film in Take One, Film Library Quarterly, and The Velvet Light Trap; filmography of women directors in Film Comment.
1973: Toronto Women and Film Festival, Washington Women’s Film Festival, season of women’s cinema at National Film Theatre in London, and Buffalo women’s film conference. Marjorie Rosen’s Popcorn Venus (first book on women in film) and Notes on Women’s Cinema, edited by Claire Johnston for British Film Institute (first anthology of feminist film theory).
1974: Chicago Films by Women Festival. First issue of Jump Cut (quarterly on contemporary film emphasizing feminist perspective); two books on images of women in film: Molly Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape and Joan Mellen’s Women and Their Sexuality in the New Film.
1975: Conference of Feminists in the Media, New York and Los Angeles. Women & Film ceases publication; The Work of Dorothy Arzner (BFI monograph edited by Johnston) and Sharon Smith’s Women Who Make Movies (guide to women filmmakers).
1976: Second New York International Festival of Women’s Films (smaller, noncollective, less successful than first) and Womanscene, a section of women’s films in Toronto’s Festival of Festivals (smaller, noncollective, but comparable in choices to 1973).
1977: First issue of Camera Obscura (journal of film theory founded largely by former Women & Film members, initially in opposition to it); Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary’s Women and the Cinema (first anthology of criticism on women and film).
1978: Women in Film Noir (BFI anthology edited by E. Ann Kaplan); special feminist issues of Quarterly Review of Film Studies and New German Critique; Brandon French’s On the Verge of Revolt: Women in American Films of the Fifties (study on images of women).
1979: Alternative Cinema Conference, bringing together over 100 feminists in the media for screenings, caucuses, and strategizing within the left; Feminism and Cinema Event at Edinburgh Film Festival, assessing the decade’s filmmaking and theory and debating what might come next. Patricia Erens’s Sexual Stratagems: The World of Women in Film (anthology on women and cinema).
It is immediately apparent from this chronology that the 1972-73 period marked a cultural watershed that has not since been equaled and that the unity, discovery, energy, and brave, we’re-here-to-stay spirit of the early days underwent a definite shift in 1975, mid-decade. Since then, the field of vision has altered. There is increased specialization, both in the direction of genre studies (like film noir) and film theory (particularly semiotic and psychoanalytic); the start of sectarianism, with women partitioned off into enclaves defined by which conferences are attended or journals subscribed to; increased institutionalization, both of women’s studies and cinema studies departments—twin creations of the 70s; a backlash emphasis on “human” liberation, which by making communication with men a priority can leave woman-to-woman feminism looking declasse. Overall, there is a growing acceptance of feminist film as an area of study rather than as a sphere of action. And this may pull feminist film work away from its early political commitment, encompassing a wide social setting; away from issues of life that go beyond form; away from the combative (as an analysis of and weapon against patriarchal capitalism) into the merely representational.
The chronology also shows the initial cross-fertilization between the women’s movement and cinema, which took place in the area of practice rather than in written criticism. The films came first. In fact, we find two different currents feeding into film work: one made up of women who were feminists and thereby led to film, the other made up of women already working in film and led therein to feminism. It was largely the first group of women who began making the films which were naturally named “feminist,”3 and largely the second group of women, often in university film studies departments, who began holding the film festivals, just as naturally named “women and/in film.” Spadework has continued in both directions, creating a new women’s cinema and rediscovering the antecedents, with the two currents feeding our film criticism.
The past eight years have reduced some of the perils of which Adrienne Rich speaks. No longer are women “undepicted in images”: even four years ago, Bonnie Dawson’s Women’s Films in Print could list over 800 available films by U.S. women alone, most depicting women. No longer are women omitted from all biography, nor are letters always censored. (In this respect, note the ongoing work of the four-woman collective engaged in “The Legend of Maya Deren Project” to document and demystify the life and work of a major, underacknowledged figure in American independent cinema.) No longer are women’s films so hard to come by: the establishment of New Day Films (1972), the Serious Business Company (c. 1973-1983) and the Iris Films collective (1975) ensures the continuing distribution of films by or about women, although the chances of seeing any independently made features by women in a regular movie theatre are still predictably slim (with Jill Godmilow’s Antonia and Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends the only U.S. films to succeed so far). Returning to Rich’s original warning, however, we reach the end of history’s comforts and arrive at our present danger: “whatever is unnamed . . . buried in the memory by the collapse of meaning under an inadequate or lying language—this will become, not merely unspoken, but unspeakable.” Herein lies the crisis facing feminist film criticism today; for after a decade of film practice and theory, we still lack our proper names. The impact of this lack on the films themselves is of immediate concern.
One classic film rediscovered through women’s film festivals indicates the sort of misnaming prevalent in film history. Leontine Sagan’s Maedchen in Uniform, a 1931 German film, details the relationship between a student and her teacher in a repressive girls’ boarding school.4 The act of naming is itself a pivotal moment in the narrative. Toward the end of the film, the schoolgirls gather at a drunken party after the annual school play. Manuela has just starred as a passionate youth and, drunk with punch, still in boy’s clothing, she stands to proclaim her happiness and love—naming her teacher Fraulein von Bernburg as the woman she loves. Before this episode, the lesbian substructure of the school and the clearly shared knowledge of that substructure have been emphasized; the school laundress even points to the prevalence of the Fraulein’s initials embroidered on the girls’ regulation chemises as evidence of the adulation of her adolescent admirers. This eroticism was not in the closet. But only when Manuela stands and names that passion is she punished, locked up in solitary—for her speech, not for her actions.
Such is the power of a name and the valor of naming. It is ironic that the inscription of the power of naming within the film has not forestalled its own continuous misnaming within film history, which has championed its antifascism while masking the lesbian origins of that resistance. The problem is even more acute in dealing with contemporary films, where the lack of an adequate language has contributed to the invisibility of key aspects of our film culture—an invisibility advantageous to the existing film tradition.
The women say, unhappy one, men have expelled you from the world of symbols and yet they have given you names . . . their authority to accord names . . . goes back so far that the origin of language itself may be considered an act of authority emanating from those who dominate . . . they have attached a particular word to an object or a fact and thereby consider themselves to have appropriated it. . . . The women say, the language you speak poisons your glottis tongue palate lips. They say, the language you speak is made up of words that are killing you . . . the language you speak is made up of signs that rightly speaking designate what men have appropriated. Whatever they have not laid hands on . . . does not appear in the language. This is apparent precisely in the intervals that your masters have not been able to fill with their words . . . this can be found in the gaps, in all that which is not a continuation of their discourse, in the zero. . . . (Monique Wittig)5
The act of misnaming functions not as an error, but as a strategy of the patriarchy. The lack of proper names facilitates derogatory name-calling; the failure to assign meaningful names to contemporary feminist films eases the acquisition of misnomers. Two key films of the 70s reveal this process and the disenfranchisement we suffer as a result.
Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975) is a chronicle of three days in the life of a Brussels housewife, a widow and mother who is also a prostitute. It is the first film to scrutinize housework in a language appropriate to the activity itself, showing a woman’s activities in the home in real time to communicate the alienation of woman in the nuclear family under European post-war economic conditions. More than three hours in length and nearly devoid of dialogue, the film charts Jeanne Dielman’s breakdown via a minute observation of her performance of household routines, at first methodical and unvarying, later increasingly disarranged, until by film’s end she permanently disrupts the patriarchal order by murdering her third client. The film was scripted, directed, photographed, and edited by women with a consciously feminist sensibility.
The aesthetic repercussions of such a sensibility are evident throughout the film. For example, the choice of camera angle is unusually low. In interviews, Akerman explained that the camera was positioned at her own height; since she is quite short, the entire perspective of the film is different from what we are used to seeing, as shot by male cinematographers. The perspective of every frame thus reveals a female ordering of that space, prompting a reconsideration of point-of-view that I had felt before only in a few works shot by children (which expose the power of tall adults in every shot) and in the films by the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu (where the low angle has been much discussed by Western critics as an entry into the “oriental” detachment of someone seated on a tatami mat, observing). Akerman’s decision to employ only medium and long shots also stems from a feminist critique: the decision to free her character from the exploitation of a zoom lens and to grant her an integrity of private space usually denied in close-ups, thereby also freeing the audience from the insensitivity of a camera barreling in to magnify a woman’s emotional crisis. Similarly, the activities of shopping, cooking, and cleaning the house are presented without ellipses, making visible the extent of time previously omitted from cinematic depictions. Thus, the film is a profoundly feminist work in theme, style, and representation; yet it has been critically received in language devoted to sanctifying aesthetics stripped of political consequence.
Shortly after Jeanne Dielman’s premiere at the Cannes film festival, European critics extolled the film as “hyper-realist” in homage both to the realist film (and literary) tradition and to the super-realist movement in painting. Two problems arise with such a name: first, the tradition of cinematic realism has never included women in its alleged veracity; second, the comparison with super-realist painters obscures the contradiction between their illusionism and Akerman’s anti-illusionism. Another name applied to Jeanne Dielman was “ethnographic,” in keeping with the film’s insistence on real-time presentation and non-elliptical editing. Again, the name negates a basic aspect by referring to a cinema of clinical observation, aimed at “objectivity” and noninvolvement, detached rather than engaged. The film’s warm texture and Akerman’s committed sympathies (the woman’s gestures were borrowed from her own mother and aunt) make the name inappropriate.
The critical reception of the film in the Soho Weekly News by three different reviewers points up the confusion engendered by linguistic inadequacy.6 Jonas Mekas questioned, “Why did she have to ruin the film by making the woman a prostitute and introduce a murder at the end, why did she commercialize it?” Later, praising most of the film as a successor to Greed, he contended that the heroine’s silence was more “revolutionary” than the murder, making a case for the film’s artistic merit as separate from its social context and moving the work into the area of existentialism at the expense of its feminism. Amy Taubin considered the film “theatrical” and, while commending the subjectivity of the camera-work and editing, she attacked the character of Jeanne: “Are we to generalize from Jeanne to the oppression of many women through their subjugation to activity which offers them no range of creative choice? If so, Jeanne Dielman’s pathology mitigates against our willingness to generalize.” By holding a reformist position (i.e., she should vary her menu, change her wardrobe) in relation to a revolutionary character (i.e., a murderer), Taubin was forced into a reading of the film limited by notions of realism that she, as an avant-garde film critic, would have ordinarily tried to avoid: her review split the film along the lines of form/content, annexing the aesthetics as “the real importance” and rejecting the character of Jeanne as a pathological woman. Again we find a notion of pure art set up in opposition to a feminism seemingly restricted to positive role models. Finally, Annette Michelson wrote a protest to Mekas which defended the film for “the sense of renewal it has brought both to a narrative mode and the inscription within it of feminist energies” (my italics). Yes, but at what cost? Here the effect of inadequate naming is precisely spelled out: the feminist energies are being spent to create work quickly absorbed into mainstream modes of art that renew themselves at our expense. Already, the renaissance of the “new narrative” is under way in film circles with nary a glance back at filmmakers like Akerman or Yvonne Rainer, who first incurred the wrath of the academy by reintroducing characters, emotions, and narratives into their films.
The critical response to Rainer’s recent films, especially Film about a Woman Who, adds instances of naming malpractice.7 Much of the criticism has been in the area of formal textual analysis, concentrating on the “post-modernist” structures, “Brechtian” distancing or cinematic deconstruction of the works. Continuing the tactic of detoxifying films via a divide-and-conquer criticism, critic Brian Henderson analyzed the central section in Film about a Woman Who according to a semiological model, detailing the five channels of communication used to present textual information.8 The analysis was exhaustive on the level of technique but completely ignored the actual meaning of the information (Rainer’s “emotional accretions”)—the words themselves and the visualization (a man and woman on a stark bed/table). At the opposite extreme, a Feminist Art Journal editorial condemned Rainer as a modernist, “the epitome of the alienated artist,” and discounted her film work as regressive for feminists, evidently because of its formal strategies.9
Rainer’s films deal with the relations between the sexes and the interaction of life and art within a framework combining autobiography and fiction. Whatever the intent of Rainer’s filmmaking in political terms, the work stands as a clear product of a feminist cultural milieu. The films deal explicitly with woman as victim and the burden of patriarchal mythology; they offer a critique of emotion, reworking melodrama for women today, and even (Kristina Talking Pictures) provide an elegy to the lost innocence of defined male/female roles. The structure of the themes gives priority to the issues over easy identification with the “characters” and involves the audience in an active analysis of emotional process. Yet little of the criticism has managed to reconcile an appreciation for the formal elements with an understanding of the feminist effect. Carol Wikarska, in a short review for Women & Film, could only paraphrase Rainer’s own descriptions in a stab at Film about a Woman Who seen in purely art-world terms.10 More critically, the feminist-defined film journal Camera Obscura concentrated its first issue on Rainer but fell into a similar quandary. While an interview with Rainer was included, the editors felt obliged to critique the films in the existing semiological vocabulary, taking its feminist value for granted without confronting the points of contradiction within that methodology. The lack of vocabulary once again frustrates a complete consideration of the work.
Lest the similarity of these misnamings merely suggest critical blindness rather than a more deliberate tactic, an ironic reversal is posed by the response to Anne Severson’s Near the Big Chakra. Silent and in color, the film shows a series of 36 women’s cunts photographed in unblinking close-up, some still and some moving, with no explanations or gratuitous presentation. Formally the film fits into the category of “structuralist” cinema: a straightforward listing of parts, no narrative, requisite attention to a predetermined and simplified structure, and fixed camera position (as defined by the namer—P. Adams Sitney). Yet Severson’s image is so powerfully uncooptable that her film has never been called “structuralist” to my knowledge, nor—with retrospective revisionism—have her earlier films been so named. Evidently any subject matter that could make a man vomit (as happened at a London screening in 1973) is too much for the critical category, even though it was founded on the “irrelevance” of the visual images. Thus a name can be withheld by the critical establishment if its application alone won’t make the film fit the category.
“Whatever they have not laid hands on . . . does not appear in the language you speak,” wrote Monique Wittig. Here is the problem: not so much that certain names are used, but that other names are not—and therefore the qualities they describe are lost. Where patriarchal language holds sway, the silences, the characteristics that are unnamed, frequently hold the greatest potential strength. In Chantal Akerman’s work, what is most valuable for us is her decoding of oppressive cinematic conventions and her invention of new codes of non-voyeuristic vision; yet these contributions go unnamed. In Yvonne Rainer’s work, the issue is not one of this or that role model for feminists, not whether her women characters are too weak or too victimized or too individualistic. Rather, we can value precisely her refusal to pander (visually and emotionally), her frustration of audience expectation of spectacle (physical or psychic), and her complete reworking of traditional forms of melodrama and elegy to include modern feminist culture. Yet these elements, of greatest value to us, are not accorded critical priority.
The effect of not naming is censorship, whether caused by the imperialism of the patriarchal language or the underdevelopment of a feminist language. We need to begin analyzing our own films, but first it is necessary to learn to speak in our own name. The recent history of feminist film criticism indicates the urgency of that need.
“Feminist Film Criticism: In Two Voices”
There have been two types of feminist film criticism,11 motivated by different geographical and ideological contexts, each speaking in a very different voice.
History of philosophy has an obvious, repressive function in philosophy; it is philosophy’s very own Oedipus. “All the same, you won’t dare speak your own name as long as you have not read this and that, and that on this, and this on that. . . . To say something in one’s own name is very strange.” (Gilles Deleuze)12
Speaking in one’s own name versus speaking in the name of history is a familiar problem to anyone who has ever pursued a course of study, become involved in an established discipline, and then tried to speak out of personal experience or nonprofessional/nonacademic knowledge without suddenly feeling quite schizophrenic. Obviously it is a schizophrenia especially familiar to feminists. The distinction between one’s own voice and the voice of history is a handy one by which to distinguish the two types of feminist film criticism. At least initially, these two types could be characterized as either American or British: the one, American, seen as sociological or subjective, often a speaking out in one’s own voice; the other, British, seen as methodological or more objective, often speaking in the voice of history. (The work of the past few years has blurred the original nationalist base of the categories: for example, the Parisian perspective of the California-based Camera Obscura.)
The originally American, so-called sociological, approach is exemplified by early Women & Film articles and much of the catalogue writing from festivals of that same period. The emphasis on legitimizing women’s own reactions and making women’s contributions visible resulted in a tendency toward reviews, getting information out, a tendency to offer testimony as theory. Fruitful in this terrain, the weakness of the approach became the limits of its introspection, the boundaries established by the lack of a coherent methodology for moving out beyond the self. An example of this approach would be Barbara Halpern Martineau’s very eccentric, subjective, and illuminating analyses of Nelly Kaplan and Agnes Varda films.13 A dismaying example of the decadent strain of this approach was Joan Mellen’s mid-70s book Big Bad Wolves, which offered personal interpretations of male characters and actors in a move to shift attention to the reformist arena of “human liberation.”
The originally British, so-called theoretical, approach is exemplified by the British Film Institute monograph on women and film (see above), by articles in Screen, and by the initial issues of Camera Obscura (which, like the British writing, defers to the French authorities). Committed to using some of the most advanced tools of critical analysis, like semiology and psychoanalysis, this approach has tried to come to terms with how films mean—to move beyond regarding the image to analyzing the structure, codes, the general subtext of the works. Fruitful for its findings regarding signification, the weakness of the approach has been its suppression of the personal and a seeming belief in the neutrality of the analytic tools, so that the critic’s feminist voice has often been muted by this methodocracy. Two of the most important products of this approach are pieces by Laura Mulvey and Claire Johnston.14 Johnston has critiqued the image of woman in male cinema and finds her to be a signifier, not of woman, but of the absent phallus, a signifier of an absence rather than any presence. Similarly, Mulvey has analyzed the nature of the cinematic spectator and finds evidence—in cinematic voyeurism and in the nature of the camera look—of the exclusively male spectator as a production assumption.
Another way of characterizing these two approaches would be to identify the American (sociological, or in one’s own voice) as fundamentally phenomenological, and the British (theoretical, or the voice of history) as fundamentally analytical. Johnston and Mulvey’s texts taken together, for example, pose a monumental absence that is unduly pessimistic. The misplaced pessimism stems from their overvaluation of the production aspect of cinema, a misassumption that cinematic values are irrevocably embedded at the level of production and, once there, remain pernicious and inviolable. Woman is absent on the screen and she is absent in the audience, their analysis argues. And yet here a bit of phenomenology would be helpful, a moment of speaking in one’s own voice and wondering at the source in such a landscape of absence. As a woman sitting in the dark, watching that film made by and for men with drag queens on the screen, what is my experience? Don’t I in fact interact with that text and that context, with a conspicuous absence of passivity? For a woman’s experiencing of culture under patriarchy is dialectical in a way that a man’s can never be: our experience is like that of the exile, whom Brecht once singled out as the ultimate dialectician for that daily working out of cultural oppositions within a single body. It is crucial to emphasize here the possibility for texts to be transformed at the level of reception and not to fall into a trap of condescension toward our own developed powers as active producers of meaning.
The differences implicit in these two attitudes lead to quite different positions and strategies, as the following selection of quotations helps to point up.15 When interviewed regarding the reason for choosing her specific critical tools (auteurist, structuralist, psychoanalytic), Claire Johnston replied: “As far as I’m concerned, it’s a question of what is theoretically correct; these new theoretical developments cannot be ignored, just as feminists cannot ignore Marx or Freud, because they represent crucial scientific developments.” In contrast to this vision of science as ideologically neutral would be the reiteration by such theoreticians as Adrienne Rich and Mary Daly that “you have to be constantly critiquing even the tools you use to explore and define what it is to be female.” In the same interview as Johnston, Pam Cook elaborated their aim as: “Women are fixed in ideology in a particular way, which is definable in terms of the patriarchal system. I think we see our first need as primarily to define that place—the place that women are fixed in.” In marked contrast to such a sphere of activity, the Womanifesto of the 1975 New York Conference of Feminists in the Media stated: “We do not accept the existing power structure and we are committed to changing it by the content and structure of our images and by the ways we relate to each other in our work and with our audience.” In her own article, Laura Mulvey identified the advantage of psychoanalytic critiques as their ability to “advance our understanding of the status quo,” a limited and modest claim; yet she herself went beyond such a goal in making (with Peter Wollen) The Riddles of the Sphinx, a film which in its refusal of patriarchal codes and feminist concerns represented in fact a Part Two of her original theory.
I have termed the British approach pessimistic, a quality which may be perceived by supporters as realistic or by detractors as colonized. I have termed the American approach optimistic, a quality which may be viewed by supporters as radical or by detractors as unrealistic, utopian. It is not surprising, however, that such a dualism of critical approach has evolved. In Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World, Sheila Rowbotham points out:
There is a long inchoate period during which the struggle between the language of experience and the language of theory becomes a kind of agony.16
It is a problem common to an oppressed people at the point of formulating a new language with which to name that oppression, for the history of oppression has prevented the development of any unified language among its subjects. It is crucial for those of us working in the area of feminist film criticism to mend this rift, confront the agony, and begin developing a synthesis of maximally effective critical practice. Without names, our work remains anonymous, insecure, our continued visibility questionable.
Anticlimax: The Names
Without new names, we run the danger of losing title to films that we sorely need. By stretching the name “feminist” beyond all reasonable elasticity, we contribute to its ultimate impoverishment. At the same time, so many films have been partitioned off to established traditions, with the implication that these other names contradict or forestall any application of the name “feminist” to the works so annexed, that the domain of “feminist” cinema is fast becoming limited to that work concerned only with feminism as explicit subject matter. “Feminist,” if it is to make a comeback from the loss of meaning caused by its all-encompassing overuse, requires new legions of names to preserve for us the inner strengths, the not-yet-visible qualities of these films still lacking in definition.
Because this need is so very urgent, I here offer an experimental glossary of names as an aid to initiating a new stage of feminist criticism. These names are not likely to be an immediate hit. First of all, it’s all well and good to call for new names to appear in the night sky like so many constellations, but it’s quite another thing to invent them and commit them to paper. Second, there’s the inevitable contradiction of complaining about names and then committing more naming acts. Third, there’s the danger that, however unwieldy, these new names might be taken as formulas to be applied willy-nilly to every hapless film that comes our way. The point, after all, is not to set up new power institutions (feminist banks, feminist popes, feminist names) but rather to open the mind to new descriptive possibilities. Not to require alternate glossaries of Talmudic herstory, but to suggest the revolutionary possibilities of non-patriarchal, non-capitalist imaginings.
One of feminist filmmaking’s greatest contributions is the body of films about women’s lives, political struggles, organizing, etc. These films have been vaguely classified under the cinéma vérité banner, where they reside in decidedly mixed company. Since they function as a validation and legitimation of women’s culture and individual lives, the name “validative” would be a better choice. It has the added advantage of aligning the work with products of oppressed peoples (with the filmmaker as insider), whereas the cinéma vérité label represents the oppressors, who make films as superior outsiders documenting alien, implicitly inferior cultures, often from a position of condescension. The feminist films of the early 70s were validative, and validative films continue to be an important component of feminist filmmaking. They may be ethnographic, documenting the evolution of women’s lives and issues (as in We’re Alive, a portrait and analysis of women in prison) or archaeological, uncovering women’s hidden past (as in Union Maids, with its recovery of women’s role in the labor movement, or Sylvia Morales’s Chicana, the first film history of the Mexican-American woman’s struggle). The form is well established, yet the constantly evolving issues require new films, such as We Will Not Be Beaten, a film on domestic violence culled from videotaped interviews with women. By employing the name “validative” in place of cinéma vérité, we can combat the patriarchal annexation of the woman filmmaker as one of the boys, i.e., as a professional who is not of the culture being filmed. It is a unifying name aimed at conserving strength.
A different name is necessary for more avant-garde films, like those of Yvonne Rainer, Chantal Akerman, Helke Sander, or Laura Mulvey/Peter Wollen. Looking to literary history, we find a concern with the role played by letters (“personal” discourse) as a sustaining mode for women’s writing during times of literary repression. The publication of historical letters by famous and ordinary women has been a major component of the feminist publishing renaissance, just as the long-standing denigration of the genre as not “real” writing (i.e., not certified by either a publishing house or monetary exchange) has been an additional goad for the creation of feminist alternatives to the literary establishment. A cinema of “correspondence” is a fitting homage to this tradition of introspective missives sent out into the world. Equally relevant is the other definition of “correspondence” as “mutual response, the answering of things to each other,” or, to take Swedenborg’s literal Doctrine of Correspondence as an example, the tenet that “every natural object symbolizes or corresponds to some spiritual fact or principle which is, as it were, its archetype.”17 Films of correspondence, then, would be those investigating correspondences, i.e., between emotion and objectivity, narrative and deconstruction, art and ideology. Thus Jeanne Dielman is a film of correspondence in its exploration of the bonds between housework and madness, prostitution and heterosexuality, epic and dramatic temporality.
What distinguishes such films of correspondence from formally similar films by male avant-garde filmmakers is their inclusion of the author within the text. Film about a Woman Who corresponds to very clear experiences and emotional concerns in Rainer’s life and Jeanne Dielman draws on the gestures of the women in Akerman’s family, whereas Michael Snow’s Rameau’s Nephew uses the form to suppress the author’s presence. (Of course, there is a tradition of “diary” movies by men as well as women, but, significantly, the presence of Jonas Mekas in most of his diary films—like that of Godard in Numéro deux—is of the filmmaker rather than the “man” outside that professional role.) Similarly, Helke Sander in The All Around Reduced Personality revises the ironic, distanced narration of modernist German cinema to include the filmmaker in a same first-person-plural with her characters, unlike her compatriot Alexander Kluge, who always remains external and superior to his characters. It is this resolute correspondence between form and content, to put it bluntly, that distinguishes the films of correspondence. Such films are essential to the development of new structures and forms for the creation and communication of feminist works and values; more experimental than validative, they are laying the groundwork of a feminist cinematic vocabulary.
Several recent films suggest another name, located midway between the two described above, and dealing directly with issues of form posed by the political and emotional concerns of the work. One such film is Sally Potter’s Thriller, a feminist murder mystery related as a first-person inquiry by the victim: Mimi, the seamstress of Puccini’s La Bohème, investigates the cause of her death and the manner of her life, uncovering in the process the contradictions hidden by the bourgeois male artist. Michelle Citron’s Daughter Rite probes relations between women in the family, using dramatic sequences to critique cinéma vérité and optical printing to reexamine home movies, that U.S. index to domestic history. Both Thriller and Daughter Rite are reconstructive in their rebuilding of other forms, whether grand opera or soap opera, according to feminist specifications. At the same time both Potter and Citron reconstruct some basic cinematic styles (psychodrama, documentary) to create new feminist forms, in harmony with the desires of the audience as well as the theoretical concerns of the filmmakers. By reconstructing forms in a constructive manner, these films build bridges between the needs of women and the goals of art.
Humor should not be overlooked as a weapon of great power. Comedy requires further cultivation for its revolutionary potential as a deflator of the patriarchal order and an extraordinary leveler and reinventor of dramatic structure. An acknowledgment of the subversive power of humor, the name “Medusan” is taken from Helene Cixous’s “The Laugh of the Medusa,” in which she celebrates the potential of feminist texts “to blow up the law, to break up the ‘truth’ with laughter.”18 Cixous’s contention that when women confront the figure of Medusa she will be laughing is a rejoinder to Freud’s posing the “Medusa’s head” as an incarnation of male castration fears. For Cixous, women are having the last laugh. And, to be sure, all the films in this camp deal with combinations of humor and sexuality. Vera Chytilova’s Daisies was one of the first films by a woman to move in the direction of anarchic sexuality, though its disruptive humor was received largely as slapstick at the time. Nelly Kaplan’s two films, A Very Curious Girl and Nea, also offer an explosive humor coupled with sexuality to discomfort patriarchal society (even though her fondness for “happy” endings that restore order has discomfited many feminist critics). Jan Oxenberg’s A Comedy in Six Unnatural Acts is an excellent recent example of a Medusan film, attacking not just men or sexism but the heterosexually defined stereotypes of lesbianism; its success has been demonstrated by its raucous cult reception and, more pointedly, by its tendency to polarize a mixed audience along the lines not of class but of sexual preference. It is disruptive of homophobic complacency with a force never approached by analytical films defending lesbianism. Another highly Medusan film is Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating (which may be curious, as it is directed by a man, but production credits indicate a total collaboration with the four actresses and co-scenarists). Celine and Julie enter each other’s lives by magic and books, joined in a unity of farce; once they are together, each proceeds to demolish the other’s ties to men (an employer, a childhood lover) by using humor, laughing in the face of male fantasies and expectations and thus “spoiling” the relationships with a fungus of parody. The film has been criticized as silly, for Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier do laugh constantly—at the other characters, themselves, the audience, acting itself—yet their laughter ultimately proves their finest arsenal, enabling them to rescue the plot’s girlchild from a darkly imminent Henry Jamesian destruction simply through a laughing refusal to obey its allegedly binding rules. Again, Celine and Julie has consistently divided its audience according to whom it threatens: it has become a cult feminist movie even as the male critical establishment (except for Rivette fan Jonathan Rosenbaum) has denounced the film as silly, belabored, too obvious, etc.
As mentioned earlier, the tradition of realism in the cinema has never done well by women. Indeed, extolling realism to women is rather like praising the criminal to the victim, so thoroughly have women been falsified under its banner. A feminist feature cinema, generally representational, is now developing with a regular cast of actresses, a story line, aimed at a wide audience and generally accepting of many cinematic conventions. The women making these films, however, are so thoroughly transforming the characterizations and the narrative workings of traditional realism that they have created a new feminist cinema of “corrective realism.” Thus, in Margarethe von Trotta’s The Second Awakening of Christa Klages, it is the women’s actions that advance the narrative; bonding between women functions to save, not to paralyze or trap, the characters; running away brings Christa freedom, while holding his ground brings her male lover only death. The film has outrageously inventive character details, an attention to the minutiae of daily life, an endorsement of emotion and intuitive ties, and an infectious humor. Marta Meszaros’s Women presents a profound reworking of socialist realism in its depiction of the friendship between two women in a Hungarian work hostel. The alternating close-ups and medium shots become a means of social critique, while the more traditional portrayal of the growing intimacy between the two women insistently places emotional concerns at the center of the film. Both films successfully adapt an existing cinematic tradition to feminist purposes, going far beyond a simple “positive role model” in their establishment of a feminist cinematic environment within which to envision their female protagonists and their activities.
These, then, are a few of the naming possibilities. However, it is not only the feminist films that demand new names, but also (for clarity) the films being made by men about women.
One name resurrected from the 50s by 70s criticism was Molly Haskell’s recoining of the “woman’s film,” the matinee melodramas which, cleared of pejorative connotations, were refitted for relevance to women’s cinematic concerns today. Wishful thinking. The name was Hollywood’s and there it stays, demonstrated by the new “woman’s films” that are pushing actual women’s films off the screen, out into the dark. These are male fantasies of women—men’s projections of themselves and their fears onto female characters. The name “projectile” identifies these films’ true nature and gives an added awareness of the destructive impact of male illusions on the female audience. It is time the bluff was called on the touted authenticity of these works, which pose as objective while remaining entirely subjective in their conception and execution. The clearest justification for this name can be found in director Paul Mazursky’s description of his An Unmarried Woman: “I don’t know if this is a woman’s movie or not. I don’t know what that means anymore. . . . I wanted to get inside a woman’s head. I’ve felt that all the pictures I’ve done, I’ve done with men. I put myself inside a man’s head, using myself a lot. I wanted this time to think like a woman. That’s one of the reasons there was so much rewriting. . . . There were many things the women I cast in the film . . . wouldn’t say. They’d tell me why, and I’d say, ‘Well, what would you say?’ and I’d let them say that. I used a real therapist; I wanted a woman, and I had to change what she said based on what she is. In other words, the only thing I could have done was to get a woman to help me write it. I thought about that for a while, but in the end I think it worked out.”19 Films such as this one (and The Turning Point, Pretty Baby, Luna, and so on ad infinitum) are aimed fatally at us; they deserve to be named “projectile.”
Certainly the names offered here do not cover all possibilities, nor can every film be fitted neatly into one category. But I hope their relative usefulness or failings will prompt a continuation of the process by others. The urgency of the naming task cannot be overstated.
Warning Signs: A Postscript
We are now in a period of normalization, a time that can offer feminists complacency as a mask for co-option. Scanning the horizon for signs of backlash and propaganda, we see the storm clouds within feminist film criticism are gathering most clearly over issues of form.
It has become a truism to call for new forms. Over and over, we have heard the sacred vows: you can’t put new revolutionary subjects/messages into reactionary forms; new forms, a new anti-patriarchal film language for feminist cinema, must be developed. While certainly true to an extent, form remains only one element of the work. And the valorization of form above and independent of other criteria has begun to create its own problems.
There is the misconception that form, unlike subject matter, is inviolate and can somehow encase the meaning in protective armor. But form is as co-optable as other elements. A recent analysis by critic Julianne Burton of the cinema novo movement in Brazil raised this exact point by demonstrating how the Brazilian state film apparatus took over the forms and styles of cinema novo and stripped them of their ideological significance as one means of disarming the movement.20 If we fetishize the long take, the unmediated shot, etc., as feminist per se, then we will shortly be at a loss over how to evaluate the facsimiles proliferating in the wake of such a definition. Furthermore, the reliance on form as the ultimate gauge of a film’s worth sets up an inevitable hierarchy that places reconstructive films or films of correspondence at the top of a pyramid, leaving corrective realist or validative approaches among the baser elements. This itself is a complex problem. First, such a view reproduces the notion of history as “progress” and supposes that forms, like technology, grow cumulatively better and better; some believe in that sort of linear quality, but I don’t. Second, recent criticism by Christine Gledhill (of film) and Myra Love (of literature) has questioned the naturalness of the Brechtian, post-modernist, deconstructive model as a feminist strategy, pointing out the real drawbacks of its endemic authoritarianism and ambiguity.21 Third, our very reasons for supporting such work must at least be examined honestly. Carolyn Heilbrun’s point should be well taken: “critics, and particularly academics, are understandably prone to admire and overvalue the carefully construed, almost puzzlelike novel [read: film], not only for its profundities, but because it provides them, in explication, with their livelihood.”22 Just as a generosity of criticism can provide the strongest support for feminist filmmakers, so acceptance of a variety of filmic strategies can provide the vigor needed by the feminist audience.
For we must look to the filmmaker and viewer for a way out of this aesthetic cul-de-sac. Aesthetics are not eternally embedded in a work like a penny in a cube of Lucite. They are dependent on and subject to the work’s reception. The formal values of a film cannot be considered in isolation, cut off from the thematic correspondents within the text and from the social determinants without. Reception by viewers as well as by critics is key to any film’s meaning. As my chronology indicates, feminist cinema arose out of a need not only on the part of the filmmakers and writers, but on the part of the women they knew to be their audience. Today we must constantly check feminist film work to gauge how alive this thread of connection still is, how communicable its feminist values are. We are in a time of transition now, when we still have the luxury of enjoying feminist work on its makers’ own terms, without having to sift the sands paranoically for impostors. But this transitional period is running out: as the cultural lag catches up, the dominant and avant-garde cinema may begin to incorporate feminist success before we recognize what we’ve lost. The emphasis on form makes that incorporation easier. Burton ended her article with a call for the inscription of modes of production within the body of Third World film criticism. Therein lies a clue. Feminism has always emphasized process; now it’s time that this process of production and reception be inscribed within the critical text. How was the film made? With what intention? With what kind of crew? With what relationship to the subject? How was it produced? Who is distributing it? Where is it being shown? For what audience is it constructed? How is it available? How is it being received? There is no need to establish a tyranny of the productive sphere over a film’s definition, nor to authorize only immediately popular films, but it will prove helpful in the difficult times ahead of us to keep this bottom line of method and context in mind, to avoid painting ourselves into a corner.
Formal devices are progressive only if they are employed with a goal beyond aesthetics alone. Here, finally, is the end of the line. Feminist film criticism cannot solve problems still undefined in the sphere of feminist thought and activity at large. We all are continually borrowing from and adding to each other’s ideas, energies, insights, across disciplines. We also need to develop lines of communication across the boundaries of race, class, and sexuality. Last year in Cuba, I heard a presentation by Alfredo Guevara, founder and director of the Cuban Film Institute. He explained its efforts to educate the Cuban audience to the tricks of cinema, to demystify the technology, to give the viewers the means with which to defend themselves against cinematic hypnosis, to challenge the dominant ideology of world cinema, to create a new liberated generation of film viewers. I will never forget his next words: “We do not claim to have created this audience already, nor do we think it is a task only of cinema.” The crisis of naming requires more than an etymologist to solve it.
Many of the ideas in the section on “The Names” originated in the context of a germinative discussion published as “Women and Film: A Discussion of Feminist Aesthetics,” New German Critique, no. 13 (1978), pp. 83-107. I am grateful to the other participants in that discussion, including Michelle Citron, Julia Lesage, Judith Mayne, Anna Marie Taylor, and the three New German Critique editors, for their support. This piece has been strengthened by the opportunity to test my new ideas in a winter program at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, and at the 1979 Edinburgh Film Festival’s Feminism and Cinema Event, where the last section on “Warning Signs” comprised a portion of my talk.
1. Adrienne Rich, “It is the Lesbian in Us,” Sinister Wisdom, no. 3 (1977) and “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Sinister Wisdom, no. 6 (1978). See also Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father, Boston: Beacon Press (1973) for her pioneering analysis of naming as power.
2. “Melodrama” and “structuralist” cinema were the two names analyzed in papers presented by my co-panelists, William Horrigan and Bruce Jenkins, at the 1978 Purdue Conference on Film, where the ideas in this paper were first presented.
3. Women artists working in film continued, as before, to make avant-garde films, but those without feminist material lie outside my present concerns.
4. For a fuller discussion of the film, see my “Maedchen in Uniform: From Repressive Tolerance to Erotic Liberation,” Jump Cut, nos. 24-25 (1981).
5. Monique Wittig, Les Guérillères, New York: Avon (1973), pp. 112-14.
6. See Soho Weekly News, November 18 (p. 36), November 25 (p. 31), and December 9 (p. 35), all 1976.
7. See also my article, “The Films of Yvonne Rainer,” Chrysalis, no. 2 (1977).
8. Presented at the International Symposium of Film Theory and Practical Criticism, Center for 20th-Century Studies, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, in 1975.
9. Cindy Nemser, “Editorial: Rainer and Rothschild, an Overview,” Feminist Art Journal 4, no. 2 (1975): 4. The same issue contained Lucy Lippard’s “Yvonne Rainer on Feminism and Her Film.” Lippard, however, is the exception in her ability to handle both the formal value and feminist strengths of Rainer’s work.
10. Women & Film. no. 7, p. 86; also Camera Obscura , no. 1 (1977).
11. Here I am considering only English-language feminist film criticism; there are other complex issues in French and German criticism, for example.
12. Gilles Deleuze, “I Have Nothing To Admit,” Semiotexte, no. 6 (1977), p. 112.
13. See Barbara Halpern Martineau, “Nelly Kaplan” and “Subjecting Her Objectification, or Communism Is Not Enough” in Notes On Women’s Cinema, ed. Claire Johnston, London: Society for Education in Film and Television (1973).
14. See Claire Johnston, “Women’s Cinema as Counter-Cinema” in Notes on Women’s Cinema and Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in Women and the Cinema, ed. Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary, New York: Dutton (1977), pp. 412-28, and reprinted in this volume.
15. Quotations are taken from: E. Ann Kaplan, “Interview with British Cine-Feminists” in Women and the Cinema, pp. 400-401; Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi, Adrienne Rich’s Poetry, New York: Norton (1975), p. 115; Barbara Halpern Martineau, “Paris/Chicago” in Women & Film, no. 7, p. 11; Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (op. cit.), p. 414, as well as personal communications. See also E. Ann Kaplan, “Aspects of British Feminist Film Theory” in Jump Cut, nos. 12-13, for an in-depth examination of the British theories and their implications.
16. Sheila Rowbotham, Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World, London: Penguin (1973), p. 33. See also her statement (p. 32) that language always is “carefully guarded by the superior people because it is one of the means through which they conserve their supremacy.”
17. The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.
18. Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Signs 1, no. 4 (1976): 888.
19. “Paul Mazursky Interviewed by Terry Curtis Fox,” Film Comment 14, no. 2 (1978): 30-31.
20. These remarks by Burton are taken from memory of her talk at the 1979 Purdue Conference on Film. As stated, they are a simplification of complexities that she was at pains to elucidate without distortion.
21. Christine Gledhill, “Recent Developments in Feminist Criticism,” Quarterly Review of Film Studies 3, no. 4 (1979); and Myra Love, “Christa Wolf and Feminism: Breaking the Patriarchal Connection,” New German Critique, no. 17 (1979).
22. Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Introduction to May Sarton, Mrs. Steven Hears the Mermaids Singing, New York: Norton (1974), p. xii.