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Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons - Interview

Is there any part of the film which looks substantially different from the way you had originally planned it? Things you had to change because of the lack of equipment and time?

PW: The original idea for the pro-filmic event of the first section being theatre, the second verbal language, the third plastic arts, and then film and finally video, it would have made sense to use an optical printer for the film section, because that's what an optical printer is. It is specific to film as a medium. But as we couldn't get one, we devised the fourth section in another way. Was there anything in particular you had in mind when asking that question?

Yes, for instance in section two, you might have wanted to use tracks rather than a hand-held camera if you had the money, would you have preferred to create an impression of a disembodied, almost autonomously moving camera?

PW: The hand-held nature of the second section is first of all in contrast to the first section, because there the camera is completely stable and doesn't move at all. So it isn't just a question of the kind of camera movement you could get by using tracks, but the fact that with a hand-held camera you get multiple movements. There are the shakes of the camera as well. On the other hand, we also wanted the contrast between the normal vérité style of film making and a style which, although clearly hand-held, showed that it had been very carefully choreographed.

So in fact the second section of the film, the section dealing with verbal language and writing, has overtones of the camera-stylo in it.


How important was the fact that you made the film in America? Would it have been different if you had been in England and had access to the same equipment here?

LM: I don't know. Our main working situation was discussion together which went on for months and months. We had hours and hours of seemingly useless discussions which in the end no doubt came in usefully somewhere. In that sense, although we worked closely with the people around us, we didn't actually change our concept. The working our of it was essentially ours. We did get a fantastic amount of feedback and advice on the technical side, but the ideas, the construction of the film came out of discussions Peter and I had.

What about the speech in section four? Was that speech selected because of the American cultural situation? It occurred to us that the choice of the myth of the Amazons, or rather the way you juxtapose the myth of the Amazons with the political speech in section four might perhaps relate to certain trends in the Women's Movement which are particularly dominant in America.

PW: You mean Jill Johnston and the radical lesbians, trends like that?

The juxtaposition seems to be thought in terms of a specific intervention in an American cultural situation.

LM: We really did want the speech in section four to be American. That is quite true. For one thing, it was going to be spoken by an American anyway. But regarding the problems raised by Jessie Ashley's speech, I would have been thinking more about my own contacts with the political aspects of the movement, and, obviously, my experience of the Women's Movement is primarily in England.

PW: On the other hand, there is a tradition of a kind of woman's suffrage in America, such as the Equal Rights Amendment campaign for instance, which is precisely going to legislators, asking for their votes. So that in a sense the speech can be seen as relating to that American situation, because in that context there is a need to state the case for class politics.

LM: Yes, one could say that. The Women's Movement in America as well as having a very radical section, also has a fantastically strong section inside the establishment ideology. Much more than in England. And although written a long time ago, Jessie Ashley's speech deals with these kind of problems.

PW: But actually, one of the difficulties of the film for an American audience is precisely the aspect of class politics. That really presents a lot of problems for them. That is why it is also important that the speech should, be American, because if you had Europeans saying the things Jessie Ashley says, eg, Sylvia Pankhurst or somebody like that, then they would be liable to think: well, that's just Europeans who talk about class politics like that. While, since it was actually an American from the history of the American movement, this speech poses these problems in a much more real way for Americans.

LM: To the women in the Movement here in England who have seen the film, that is the sequence which has moved them most, but people in America didn't mention it. They would say they liked this sequence or that one, but they never actually mentioned sequence four at all. Except one friend of mine who was working on suffrage history, and she was very interested by it. So in fact, although the speech is American, it is just as relevant to the situation here in England, although people here are perhaps less pessimistic than Jessie Ashley was.

How did you script the various sections?

PW: For the mime, we gave the mime-company a synopsis and they said they wanted to work it out for themselves first. After a while they, came back and showed us what they wanted to do. We made one or two comments, but left it basically as they wanted it. In fact, now they have incorporated that mime into their repertory. So they now still do it as a stage performance and they're still working on it. It has changed quite a bit since they did it for the film. For the second section, the text was written and the camera movements were choreographed on paper for the camera man.

LM: Section three was carefully scripted. But to a certain extent, it has become difficult to see it now. Unless you know a terrific amount about the ancient Amazon legends, it is difficult to see precisely what the order of the pictures means. But there is a very definite system and structure in the arrangement of those images.

Yes, there is a chronological progression, and also a narrative progression of the myth itself, and it tends to become a bit confusing.

PW: There is a problem there. You have the chronology of the myth in the sense that Heracles comes before Theseus and Theseus comes before Achilles. Then there is the chronology of the artists. But there is also the way the myth develops. The fourth section was basically a matter of timing.

LM: That section was scripted in the sense that we took the letters Jessie Ashley had written from Headquarters - there were four of them- and then we edited them together. The final section again was basically a matter of timing, and the fifth video tape in section four was also carefully scripted in terms of choreography of the camera and the performance of the actress.

Did you cut anything out?

PW: We were going to have more dialogue over the animation talking about Bachofen and the various chains in the myth.

LM: The text was going to go into the ideological implications of the different versions of the myth of the Amazon fighters. The change in significance between Heracles fighting the Amazon queen Andromache, Theseus abducting his Antiope, and then Achilles and Penthesilea. All these have different ideological overtones and correspond to different historical phases: Heracles was a kind of lone male hero fighting all kinds of monsters and the Amazon queen was just one of these monsters. Theseus, who was regarded as the founding father of Athens, was a great patriarchal figure. He abducted the Amazon queen and took her for his wife. That obviously means something quite different from entering into battle with her. Anyway, the entire Amazon nation invaded Greece to rescue their queen and were defeated. So in this version you have the romantic involvement of king and queen and on the other hand the mass of the Amazons as a hostile, alien and barbaric horde, just like the centaurs or the Persians. The victory of the Greeks is seen as one of the great victories of civilisation over exterior barbaric forces, and the establishment of patriarchal supremacy. The Achilles and Penthesilea story is again different, because there the theme of necrophilia, of love for the dead woman is introduced.

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