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Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons - Interview


What were the conditions which produced the conception of the film?

Laura Mulvey: Really a combination of circumstances Peter was teaching in America in the film department at Northwestern University near Chicago, which meant that we could use equipment for free and work with students who had a certain experience of film-making and could produce basic technical skills. That was the practical beginning. Also that Peter was enough money to make the thing just financially viable. But all that wouldn't have been decisive if we hadn't felt that we should make a film that we'd got to a point where it was the logical thing to do if at all practically possible. This was partly because we have both a very strong background and formation in Hollywood movies and had only very recently started to get into experimental film. Really only in the last couple of years. This meant that it was possible to make a movie within one's own current of interest, try to make an intervention of a kind, which would have been totally impossible if one's mind was still dominated by 35mm narrative film. At the same time we wanted to be pretty ambitious within our very obvious limitations; the film would have to try really to experiment as well as just being within an experimental tradition. So the decision to film without conventional editing was basic from beginning, especially - I think - as Peter had been working on editing and point of view. And I'd been world on identification and voyeurism, especially in terms of political film-making.

The starting-off point was always Kleist's play Penthesilea. I think what happened was that we read somewhere that G W Pabst had meant to make a movie of Penthesilea starring Leni Riefenstahl, which turned out to be inaccurate information because she wanted to do it herself. The play interested, us for various reasons. For one thing, Peter had just found the Ernest Jones essay on dying together [4] which is about Kleist's extraordinary life, or rather death. Also I was interested at the time in male phantasies of women, coming out of my work on fetishism and Allen Jones. So it was the psychoanalytical aspects of the story which appealed to us first of all. Also we wanted to make a film about a story, rather than a film of a story, so it was an advantage that this was a story that had been told many times and had. been changed radically by Kleist that this other meaning came out... i.e., the fact that the woman killed the man rather than the man killing the woman; this changed the psychological implications of the story. Then obviously the whole concept of the Amazons is interesting from the point of view of women now. Women being so mythless, lacking myths of their own, looking to the Amazons as one of the few myths of strong women that actually exist. We wanted to hold onto that and to go into it in more detail, trying to find out whether it was a feminist myth or whether it was a kind of male phantasy myth. All that appealed to us and we started reading up on it, looking, into work that had been done such as Bachofen.[5] The interesting thing about the Amazons for women is that they appear as a society of women outside of male society. But also as women in struggle, they carry spears and fight and ride horses, and have very phallic connotations. They appear like the idealised image a sexist society has of men/women - of phallic women. At the same time, the whole mystique Kleist goes into, of dying together is very much a return to the idea of the strong woman as the mother. It has two sides to it, both that of the phallic woman and that of the mother.

Peter Wollen:Also in the history of the myth, looking back, you have that link between Freud and Engels. The Amazons in the light of the mythological history which Bachofen produces are a kind of last ditch resistance against the institution of patriarchal law. So, apart from being mythological, beings in themselves, they also occupy a special place in mythological history.

LM: The idea being that they were defending the mother goddesses and the earth goddesses of the lost matriarchal world, which Bachofen saw as preceding the patriarchal world but having to give way to it. The reason being that the matriarchal world stood for emotion, blood-ties, religion, and so on, while the patriarchal world stood for law, the state, the individual. According to him, civilisation couldn't exist until matriarchy had been defeated by the patriarchal world, and he traces this back through mythological history, seeing the Amazons as the last ditch resistance of matriarchy. Actually, it is more ambiguous, as he has two different views about the Amazons, but there it gets too complicated to go into.

PW: Effectively Bachofen was the kind of founding father of all that strain of mythical anthropology that comes out in Frazer's Golden Bough and in Totem and Taboo and finally in Levi-Strauss.

So in fact the film was produced by something of a collision between Kleist, Bachofen, Ernest Jones, Allen Jones and the Amazons?

LM: I suppose so. What a strange thought!

What was the material basis for the film? You've already mentioned that Northwestern had the equipment, but what about the rest?

PW: Right, the means of production. The basic equipment we used we could get for free because it belonged to the film division. We had to hire just one or two things they didn't have or which weren't there at the time. The money for the film came out of my salary. We had no grant or anything. It cost about $5,000 and all of that we paid for ourselves.

In what way did the conditions of production determine the nature of the text? For instance, was the elimination of editing primarily due to financial considerations, such as the need for a low shooting ratio? Or were you actually trying to exploit the limitations of the conditions you had to work in?

LM: No. You can't really say which came first. The film existed in those terms and we wanted to make a film that was of formal interest and that was about film making as well as about all those things we were talking about earlier.

PW: Yes. The idea of doing a film without editing had an autonomous history in the way we had been thinking about film anyway. Besides which, it's also the most rational way of making a film with those very limited resources. There were things we originally hoped to do but which we had to drop. For instance, in the cinema section, ie, section four, we had wanted to use an optical printer, but we couldn't get access to one, so in the end it was just a simple A and B roll printing, a simple superimposition.

LM: Another thing about the practical circumstances was the fact that the equipment at Northwestern was under very heavy use. There were a lot of students wanting to use it, so we had to fit in with the schedule available. That meant that a shooting ratio as near as possible to one to one was necessary for our purposes, both from the point of view of money and time, but also because we would only have access to the equipment a very limited amount of time on odd days. So if we had wanted to shoot in a higher ratio, it would have been extremely difficult to do re -shooting because we wouldn't have been able to get at the equipment again for another fortnight or so. So in that sense, it was very important to have things incredibly carefully worked out in advance and to be quite sure of getting it right.

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