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Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen

By Rakhee Balaram


Like the slow rush of flipping pages of the 1960's French sci-fi film journal Midi minuit fantastique, in the evocative opening sequence of Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen's influential Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), visual image and 'narrative' text form a taut experience shaped by history, myth, chance and feminist thought. These opening pages of the journal offer not only a superimposed outline of the subsequent film (telling everything, but revealing nothing) but also a series of surrealist illustrations in which the reading of the journal and film mirrors a more perilous 'reading' of the unconscious. In their previous collaborative efforts, Penthesilea (1974), based on Kleist's version of the epic Amazon queen, and later works AMY! (1980) and Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti (1982), Mulvey and Wollen used 16 mm experimental film to resurrect moments of history that have been eclipsed or misaligned (often with female subjects).

The focus and collaboration of Mulvey and Wollen, which was at once indicative of the 1960's and 1970's New Left current, as well as a commitment to 'theory' and 'practice,' reflected a marriage partnered by a shared social and aesthetic vision. They advanced principles of political and private life in relation to contemporary power structures, which they examined with scholarly rigour through their combined influences: semiotic theory, Russian avant-garde and French new wave filmmakers, in particular Eisenstein and Godard, Engels' writings, Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis and a deep and sensitive awareness of historicity and the limits of narrative cinema. The theory that defines their practice is important both in terms of the context in which it is created and for the conceptual debates underpinning it during this period.

2. Politics of Seeing

Mulvey's seminal text, "Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema" (1975) radically questioned the status of the male gaze in cinema at the height of feminist consciousness in North America and Western Europe. First published in Screen in 1975, the polemical essay had a wide and immediate impact for its theory of spectatorship and the examination of the unconscious structures underlying traditional cinema. (A few years earlier, Peter Wollen published his influential essay, "Godard and Counter Cinema: Vent d'Est" in Afterimage (1972), which clearly set out the mechanisms of counter-cinema (which Godard typified) and its oppositional relationship to conventional Hollywood devices. Wollen then attacked problems in Godard's recent films to point towards a more revolutionary cinema based on a deliberate engagement and countering of dominant aesthetic and ideological structures and fantasies.) By interrogating the gaze of the spectator that defined Hollywood cinema and objectified women, Mulvey sought a cinema that thrust towards liberation and away from the repetition of power and patriarchal structures that drive Hollywood. Mulvey's text was published the same year as French theorist Hélène Cixous's Le Rire de la Méduse, which was equally groundbreaking for its new (if possibly essentialist) vision of écriture feminine. Cixous's manifesto crystallized a practice where women's life, art, and subjective experience could be voiced through a careful writing of expository texts focusing on the body and psychoanalytic drives, citing 'woman must write woman.'. Mulvey's filmmaking was equally sensitive to a liberation of vision and voice, if more grounded by cinema history, narratology and concrete social and conceptual goals ('new forms for new content') which was informed in part by the Independent Filmmakers Association as much as the serious investigations of her women's theory reading group in early 1970's London called The History Group with members such as Mary Kelly, Juliet Mitchell and Sally Alexander. This group led her to a sustained interest in Freud and the implications of visuality and their psychoanalytic consequences for women.

3. Narrative Devices

If feminist intervention in cinema is sustained by a fresh and innovative experience of spectatorship in terms of history, subject matter, space and visual interpretation, it is also deepened by a break with traditional narrative. Narrative and subsequent editing imply a causality of events and an imposed structure that can be seen to re-affirm the patriarchal order or conventional thinking which the avant-garde seeks to transform for political and societal change. Like Godard before him, Wollen was inspired by a system of chapters as a loose, framing mechanism. Heavy, conceptual moments in the film, such as "Stones" in the seven-sequence Riddles of the Sphinx are given verbal relief and thematic importance in the titles at the outset of the film. Formal devices include cue cards in the second section of Penthesilea, in addition to quotations by Mallarmé, Lacan, H.D., and Freud to introduce each sequence; maps are used in both AMY! and Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti as well a play of juxtapositions and visual images and artistic titles in the latter. Technology and technical innovation also play a key role in understanding the emotional and conceptual structure of these films. Wollen has admitted the narrative aspect to be a constant tension within a project. "It's a debate around narrative, though. For me the problem is to find a way of working with narrative [...] It's a real problem not to be caught between a complete refusal of narrative and a complete acceptance of it." "Crystal Gazing," Framework (1982).

4. Queen of the Amazons

The use of feminism in Penthesilea underscored the drive to represent a 'different' kind of modernist discourse on women by revisiting Kleist's version of Penthesilea in which she slays her lover Achilles. The film uses a series of five sequences (playing with the aural similarity of words 'pente', the Greek word for 'five' and the name of the queen derived from 'penthos' or 'grief') which further heightens its numerical / dramatic versus linear / narrative sequencing. The film opens with a theatrical enactment of the story of Penthesilea, where luminous metal shields signify battles that lead to love, murder and death. The film continues into the second sequence with Peter Wollen's intervention and defense of filmic discontinuity and editing restraint while simultaneously moving through a plant-filled interior room and exterior patio embarking on the thematic traits of Penthesilea. Wollen refers to both Kleist's unique vision as well as Leni Riefenstahl's dream of telling Penthesilea's story. His dialogues are interspersed with still cue cards that repeat sequences of his speech or juxtapose them to create new dimensions of temporality. The film proceeds with comic book images of Wonderwoman, followed by the voice and images of suffragettes at the beginning of the century struggling to establish their need for emancipation. A montage of museum objects related to the story of Penthesilea creates a rupture in the temporal flow from the ancient past to the present and an awareness of how those moments are resurrected. This subtle play between history real and imagined and its consequences for a new social vision for women shows the filmmakers' willingness to experiment with the ellipses of space, history and society in a conscious act of displacement and renewal that daringly cuts across political and historical terrain much as the airplane in AMY!

5. The Sphinx

Released in the same period as Chantal Ackerman's Jeanne Dielman, Agnès Varda's L'Une Chante et l'autre pas and Coline Serreau's documentary Mais qu'est-ce qu'elles veulent, depicting women's lives under the MLF (Mouvement de Libération des Femmes) in France, Mulvey and Wollen's timely Riddles of the Sphinx focuses on the same themes, of women's lives and personal choice. The film is composed of seven sections with one long central section of thirteen pans that attempts to reverse the Oedipal myth using the history of mother, Louise, and her daughter, Anna. The opening sequence of flipping pages is followed by Laura's on-camera discussion of the Sphinx, which she is shown to be tape recording. Set against Mike Ratledge's hypnotic music, footage of the Egyptian Sphinx and pyramid are then shown at various angles including a series of close-ups of the Sphinx in grainy detail, reminiscent of the photographs in Antonioni's Blow Up (1967) in which the dark and light values take on the characteristics of the unconscious to be deciphered or left ambiguous. The central core of the film is anchored by the innovative 360° pans that tell the story of Louise and Anna (or mother and child). The circular pan as a formal device serves to emphasize the dyadic structure of mother and child and the implications of their (too-tight) bond. Here, as elsewhere in Mulvey and Wollen's films, the technological and conceptual uphold actual possibilities for social change through a subdued and clever use of emotional content. This aspect is played out critically when excerpts of the artist Mary Kelly's installation Post Partum Document, a systematic account of the pain and intense introspection into a mother-son dyadic relationship, are seen being 'edited' by Louise's estranged husband, Chris, when she is asked to visit him at work. This sequence cannily acts as a counterpoint to the film's panning structure by revealing Chris as the symbol of patriarchy, and therefore an object of resistance, for his editing of woman's voice and experience. Thus the directors quietly challenge and reinstate their own moral and filmmaking concerns.

The mobility of woman suggested by Louise's departure from the home and the restrictions of duty and childcare is rendered physically in the sequence "Acrobats" (filmed with colour filters and an optical printer) and psychically in the final one-take 'puzzle ending' where two drops of mercury are drawn together at the center of a maze. The 'resolution,' however, comes earlier in the last pan of the central section when Louise narrates a story she once read about a box containing the Sphinx. She understands the Sphinx's words 'capital' 'delay' 'body' to embody the voice of women ('the voice-over- the voice apart' as Laura decrees at the start) that is shut out of patriarchal society. This is also witnessed in Laura's listening to her rewound and replayed voice from sequence two in sequence six. Liberty is examined and reclaimed at the end of the film, thus joining the beginning and the end of the film in a loose narrative structure. These aspects of women's experience (marginal, shut-out and cut-off) reflect their social status although this relationship could be further perceived as conflating women with the unconscious (Freud's 'dark continent'). However, the film firmly seeks to free women precisely of these representations and misconceptions ("anatomy is no longer destiny") through the Sphinx's reclaimed voice, which suggests conscious action to counter marginalization as exemplified in the search for Union and day-care solutions by the women at Louise's workplace.

6. Heroines

The 'heroine' for Mulvey and Wollen is a vehicle in which to consider the lives of women, their productions and their fate. If Penthesilea and the Greek Sphinx represent two facets of mythic womanhood, Amy Johnson, the daring (and darling) long-distance pilot in the 1930s signaled risk, reward and ultimate disenchantment for women. Trapped by both popular song "Amy, Wonderful Amy!" and public esteem, Amy Johnson struggled to remove the mask that society imposed on her (at one point she is seen applying make-up to herself and the camera) returning, as one critic has described, from the 'masculine' world of achievement to the 'feminine' world of the gaze. Here, Mulvey and Wollen complicate the perception of women's achievement by problematizing its reception both in her era and in the present. On the one hand, Amy represents a liberation, movement and mobility in the same way as the acrobats in Riddles of the Sphinx. The pleasures of flight resonate through visual maps, speed and radio voice-overs while at the same time her journeys are interspersed with evidence of real political troubles in these same mapped regions building towards decolonization.

Amy's story reflects the limits of women's role in society: heroine or victim. However, Amy's role as a producer of meaning (she first burns love letters on a fire that she later uses to make coffee) inspires Mulvey's respect for melodrama and the way in which a story is told. (The film itself fell victim to a funding cut that resulted in its shortened 33-minute format). Woman's competence in the traditionally masculine domain of technology and machines, as well as Amy's interest in engineering and maintenance of her plane, establish her as a creator of personal destiny, even if (due to societal pressure) she ultimately cannot control it.


Conceived in conjunction with an exhibition that Wollen co-curated at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti raises questions of political marginality and third world politics situated in Mexico where the artists worked. Each artist worked under the shadow of more influential partners: Kahlo with Diego Rivera and Modotti with Edward Weston. Deliberately choppy, each section focuses on the biography and work of each artist (paintings and photographs) in a series of individual parallels and counterpoints designed to highlight larger political questions. The feminist Anglo-American slogan of the private becoming the political and the political becoming private is evoked conceptually in the placement of their work as a series of contrasts and convergences in an equation of self-reflexivity and feminist re-appropriation.

The film focuses on the politicizing and aestheticizing of the innate corporeal suffering in Kahlo's paintings in contrast with the lucid geometry that heightened the beauty of Modotti's photographed subject. In each case, the manipulation of the medium by the artist is evaluated both for personal as well as revolutionary goals. Their 'high' art medium (or what Mulvey and Wollen term their 'dialect' of that language) also carries representations of peasant and folk culture signifying a solidarity in image and representation along class lines that is not exploitative or oppressive in terms of 'feminist and revolutionary' politics. As the film points out, Kahlo uses herself as the subject of her interior world while Modotti looks at the lives of people and uses the external world to shape her practice. Mulvey and Wollen focus on the renaissance of art and the persistence and regeneration of third world politics in a feminist context or, in other words, the production of the private and political in the hands of women.

In each of these films the feminine confronts history and myth, Mulvey and Wollen experiment with technical and narrative techniques while informed by feminist and avant-garde thought and enlightened social possibilities. Made for a 1970s and early 1980s audience at the height of 16 mm and bolstered by funding opportunities made available by the British Film Institute, the economic and intellectual possibilities were for a brief moment limitless. The results of a restless and questioning idealism are shown in these films, what Wollen fearlessly coined "the space between a story which was never told and history which has never been made."

Rakhee Balaram is a writer and literary critic soon to complete a second doctorate in art history. She works in Paris and New York City.

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