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Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons - Interview

The Amazon society, which is supposed to operate outside the patriarchal law, is nevertheless founded on castration.

PW: Precisely. It turns out that the Amazon myth is a male phantasy. The Amazon society is situated in myth, and the myth is a male phantasy founded on castration. The question is: could it take place in history? Could the abolition of patriarchal law take place in history?

LM: Anyway, the film doesn't pretend to present a theory of the unconscious and history. It is a polemical film in that it is supposed to raise these questions in a direct manner.

PW:That is why I said earlier that there is a kinship of problematic between the film and the practice of Tel Quel.The film just does not give the same answer, but the problematic is similar. The film does not give any answer, in fact.

LM: Women have tried to recapture the myth of the Amazons. But in fact, what the myth celebrated was the defeat of women, the castration of women. But recently women have tried to recapture the myth for themselves, through identification with the Amazons. What the movie tries to do is to show that the myth is still within the patriarchal symbolic order. So the problem is not, can you recapture the myth through female identification, but can you conceive of a symbolic order which is non-patriarchal?

What is your interest in Leni Riefenstahl in this context?

LM: She was one of those who identified in a direct sense with the phallic woman. She identified in phantasy with Penthesilea.The irony of the Kleist story is that while it presents the image of the phallic woman, it also implies the whole male involvement with the mother and the return to the womb.

Do you see any possible contradiction between the theoretical elaboration of questions regarding the symbolic order and the fact that the film is tied to representation, which in a way militates to an extent against the elaboration of an essentially conceptual discourse?

PW: No, because the, whole film, to my mind, poses the problem of film as a text rather than as pure representation, and to that extent the conceptualisations involved make such a theoretical discourse possible. Hopefully, people wouldn't fall into the way of looking at it as a representation, but as a text.

Don't you think this kind of text construction demands an enormous amount of work from the reader/viewer? Do you regard such demands as politically justified in view of the state of film culture at the present time?

PW: Originally, we wanted to put a bibliography at the end of the film, but we chickened out . . .

LM: You wanted to ....

PW:....Regarding the theoretical problems, I would like to say two things. Firstly, regarding the state of political film. I think you have to distinguish between three levels of political film, which is a classical distinction: films of agitation, propaganda and theory. All have different purposes and different audiences. Agitation is for a specific conjuncture and for a specific limited audience. Propaganda is aimed at a mass and presents a general kind of political line and broad ideas, and the theoretical film again is for a limited audience and a specific conjuncture but a theoretical conjuncture rather than an immediately political one. Theoretical films are for so to speak a 'cadre' audience. Obviously, most political films are either agitational or propagandist. To my mind, all three levels are necessary, although the problem of political film is often posed in terms of one as against the other.

Secondly, I think it is wrong to pose the question in terms of the current state of political film making. One of the objects of the film, to my mind anyway, is to say that people should be prepared to make the same effort and approach a film in the same way as they would a book. It is a text, and just as when people read a book they are prepared to do further reading or they are prepared to encounter difficulties, so they should in a film. That is implicit in the transfer of the idea of reading.

LM: Yes, I agree with that. And also, what I think is very important about the film, is that it is not graspable as a single, enclosed unit and it wasn't intended to be. In the second sequence, for instance, there are moments when, if you read the cue cards, you can't hear what Peter is saying, and you do sort of have to go in and out of it. And that, hopefully, is the case all through the film, as it's multi-layered and disharmonic, not a self-sufficient, self-enclosed whole. And I would hope that the film would be readable in different ways and that you wouldn't have to read it in all its endless implications and ramifications to make something out of it and to enjoy it.

PW: When I was talking about theory, propaganda and agitational films, I was talking in classical political terms, and I was implying that one could call our film a political film in the sense that one, for instance, would talk about Brecht as producing political texts. You can also argue that people like Lautreamont or Joyce or Duchamp were political in another sense, subversive or deconstructive, although they professed no interest in politics at all. And our film shows as much influence from, eg, Duchamp as it does from Brecht - perhaps more. So there are two different senses in which we can talk about it as a political film. Lautreamont's problematic or Duchamp's, wasn't political. Maybe the problematic of those who read Lautreamont is political, but in this film, the problematic inscribed in the flim by the film-makers is political too.

Isn't there a problem regarding the 'cadre' audience, as you put it? The work of reading required is very specialised and not at all widely available. In fact, people who at the moment are able to perform the reading work required, are, from the point of view of class politics, rather marginal. The best one could say is that they are politically progressive.

LM: It would be our bad luck if that were true. The film was made optimistically in the hope that it could make some sort of intervention. If it doesn't, then that would be too bad; and anyway, what do you mean by 'marginal'?

The kind of reading knowledge required is not as yet available except in very limited circles of intellectuals, and these circles are marginal in that, they are outside the milieu at present - actively involved in political film-making The political effectiveness of such a strategy of text construction in that sense seems doubtful.

PW: You can say that the audience for that kind of film is marginal, but the problem is not marginal. So you begin with the problem, and you hope that the audience will find it, and enjoy it.

August 7th, 1974.

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