Writing on the paradox of women’s subjectivity in cinema, film theorist Teresa de Laurentis quotes psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche on the necessity of seeing one’s self represented on the screen.
“The questions of identification, self-definition, the modes or the very possibility of envisaging oneself as subject-which the male avant-garde artists and theorists have also been asking, on their part, for almost one hundred years, even as they work to subvert the dominant representations or to challenge their hegemony-are fundamental questions for feminism. If identification is “not simply one psychical mechanism among others, but the operation itself whereby the human subject is constituted,” as Laplanche and Pontalis describe it, then it must be all the more important, theoretically and politically, for women who have never before represented ourselves as subjects, and whose images and subjectivities-until very recently, if at all-have not been ours to shape, to portray, or to create.”
This is taken from the essay Rethinking Women’s Cinema, from de Lauretis’ Figures of Resistance – Essays in Feminist Theory. De Lauretis’ investigation asks us to redefine our notions of feminist cinema, going beyond the push-pull dichotomy of either “serious” documentary work of feminist causes and ideals as well as positive images of women and the other being a deconstruction of the film medium itself, being built around patriarchal ideals and distorted representations.
To put it more succinctly, the movement of feminist film-making is twofold. One, is the depiction of feminine images and stories. The other is a new approach to film-making, a disruption of the subject/object dialectic, the viewer and the viewed. De Lauretis breaks it down into ‘feminine’ and ‘feminist’. Both are important.
In another essay, Female Directors, Female Gaze: The Search for Female Subjectivity in Film, direction Rubayait Hossain quotes Agnes Varda about her visual vocabulary. “A woman’s vocabulary exists, linked to the feminine universe. I feel this occasionally in that I am inspired by a certain number of attractions, subjects which always draw me rather more than they would if I were a man…I don’t want to make feminist cinema either, just want to tell women’s stories about women.”
This push/pull, this feminist filmmaking rhetoric, as well as depictions of women’s experiences, served as the connecting thread for a particularly brilliant series of short films, curated by Church of Film‘s Muriel Lucas, screened at the Clinton Street Theater.
Secret Gardens was comprised of 10 short films, from a wide array of brilliant women film-makers. Altogether, the collection showcased nearly every experimental film-making technique you could think of, as well as numerous innovative, imaginative ways of looking at their subject matter, not even to mention that many wouldn’t begin to think to look at these topics in the first place.
It’s as de Lauretis comments in Rethinking Women’s Cinema, discussing a hooked rug in Sylvia Plath‘s The Bell Jar. Much of women’s experiences are perceived as “pre-aesthetic”, belonging to the domestic but not the artistic, despite the fact that these are the images and realities we inhabit most frequently. Take the brilliant Schmeerguntz by Swedish filmmaker Gunvor Nelson. Schmeerguntz peels back the surface of polite society, all the pristine packaging that makes this society turn, hiding the ugliness and filth from our everyday gaze. It’s done in a way that’s both sickening and hilarious, strange and sad.
Schmeerguntz is also one example of why this kind of filmmaking is so vital. It helped inspire a protest of the 1968 Miss America contest.
Montage was seen frequently throughout the evening, with many films using creative editing techniques to show hidden connections between images. Like the first film, Barbara’s Blindness, by Canadian directors Joyce Wieland and Betty Ferguson. Barbara’s Blindness cut up images of a little blind girl, eyes wrapped in gauze, with scenes from Silver Screen monster movies and romance/adventures, then degraded and manipulated in a variety of ways, usually involving analog film manipulation, such as painting or scratching the film.
Film’s physical properties was another common technique found throughout a number of the films, such as the psychedelic visual poetry of Peyote Queen by Storm de Hirsch. Or the hypnotic strobing of My Name is Oona, also by Gunvor Nelson; a stark, dramatic depiction of Nelson’s daughter told in cutting black&white, made all the more trance-inducing with a minimalist soundtrack of only the film’s title looped and slurred throughout its 9-and-a-half minutes.
Film’s physicality, both literally as well as subjectively, are fully on display in the evening’s finale, Fuses by Carolee Schneemann, my personal favourite “erotic” film of all time (which i also wrote an essay about for the fabulous Film & Fishnet webzine), as well as avant-garde and feminist. Fuses shows Carolee Schneemann having sex with her then-husband, the poet James Tenney, while being watched by her cat, Tench.
Fuses is a riot of nearly every avant-garde filmmaking technique you could think of. Surreal, abstract montage, with images of the couple fucking giving way to fields of wheat, waves crashing on the shore. The film is painted on and scratched, in a style intentionally like that of Stan Brakhage.
Fuses was created as a response to Brakhage’s Window Water Baby Moving, depicting his wife giving birth. Schneemann sought to reclaim the female body from Brakhage’s male gaze. It worked. Beautifully. And poetically. Fuses is a window into the nearly mystical qualities of love and physicality, the way that times seem to stop, the languor. It shows the often illogical ways our minds wander, in a style much more honest and accurate than yr typical linear narrative plot. It lets you feel what it feels like to be in love, you can practically feel the breeze on your skin as the curtains billow on a sunny, endless afternoon.
Secret Gardens offered an intimate, indispensable window into some women’s experiences and outlooks, in imaginative, thoughtful, and unique ways. Everything on display was also exquisitely beautiful, not that that’s necessary but always makes for a nice night out. Glimpse of the Garden (Marie Menken, 1957) is a 16mm symphony, a soft-focus whirl, “a very personal cinema without protagonists.” It’s like “the high art of the housewife,” which was used to describe another ridiculously gorgeous film on display, Water Sark, also by Joyce Wieland. Water Sark is “merely” a short film of Wieland’s kitchen table. It’s really an exposition of what can be done with a personal, handheld camera and everyday mirrors and prisms that surround us. Wieland creates a crystalline universe using water glasses and cut glass vases, using, as she puts it “no people, no outside world, no glamour, no money”
High art. Lowbrow. Narrative. Psychoanalytic. Joyful. Sexy. Sad. It was all here, all in attendance, on a drizzling Wednesday night at the Clinton Street Theater, as Portland slowly settles into early fall. More time for experimental films, that means.
Church of Film will be screening Soviet Sci-Fi Animation on Sunday, 8.25.19, at Psychic Bar in North Portland.
Complete List of Films Screened at Secret Gardens: Women in North American Underground Cinema (with program notes)
Constructed from found and stock footage, Barbara’s Blindness is a meditation on vision and adversity, drawing humour and pathos from a moralising educational film. “We started out with a dull film about a little blind girl named Mary and ended up with something that made us get crazy.”
A Moment in Love
Clarke moves away from the strictly depictive perspective maintained in Dance in The sun and towards an expressive and interpretive use of the camera in A Moment in Love. As the dancers move, the camera not only follows them but exceeds and breaks their trajectories. It manipulates their perceptible movements to such an extent that the dancers appear to be gliding among the clouds, suspended in endless and even supernatural bliss. As Clarke explains: “I started choreographing the camera as well as the dancers in the frame”. With bright, lustrous tone, Clarke goes beyond subjective camera work to the point that her camera becomes subject itself.
Glimpse of the Garden
“[Menken’s] is a very personal cinema without protagonists. It searches to express the viewer’s emotional point-of-view to the limits of abstraction and rhythm” – Jon Gartenberg
A further exploration into the color of ritual, the color of thought; a journey through the underworld of sensory derangement.
“Schmeerguntz” is one long raucous belch in the face of the American Home. A society which hides its animal functions beneath a shiny public surface deserves to have such films as Schmeerguntz shown everywhere – in every PTA, every Rotary Club, every club in the land. For it is brash enough, brazen enough and funny enough to purge the soul of every harried American married woman.”
“I wanted to make a self-sufficient film, photographing myself in those mirrors on the table with all that water and prisms, and glasses and cups. In a way I was saying I can do a film that needs no people, no outside world, no glamour, no money, and do it all in the kitchen.”
“I decided to make a film at my kitchen table, there is nothing like knowing my table. The high art of the housewife. You take prisms, glass, lights and myself to it. ‘The Housewife is High.’ Water Sark is a film sculpture, being made while you wait.”
My Name is Oona
An evocative film featuring a little girl, the artist’s daughter. The film is edited and rhythmically composed to accompany a simple spoken phrase that is repeated and looped in a minimalist pattern. My Name is Oona is a cinematic voyage between inner and outer worlds, between the safe and familiar and the frightening unknown.
“[it] captures in haunting, intensely lyrical images fragments of the coming to consciousness of a child girl. A series of extremely brief flashes of her moving through nightlit space or woods in sensuous negative, separated by rapid fades into blackness, burst upon us like a fairy-tale princess, with a late sun only partially outlining her and the animal in silvery filigree against the encroaching darkness; one of the most perfect recent examples of poetic cinema. Throughout the entire film, the girl, compulsively and as if in awe, repeats her name, until it becomes a magic incantation of self-realization.” – Amos Vogel
“Marie Menken’s Lights is a film of such joy, such pure sensual beauty, that it is breathtaking and overwhelming. In just seven minutes, with a breakneck sequence of abstract, colorful images of lights floating in a black nighttime field, Menken delivers an intoxicating visual experience. It’s an abstracted vision, like the work of Stan Brakhage, a celebration of light and color in which each frame is alive with furious scribbles of blurred light and tangled rainbow beams. It’s as though Menken is drawing with light by shaking her camera, unleashing small hash marks of white light and amber curlicues that twist around each other. Through Menken’s expressive stylization, the marks and lines of these lights become a form of handwriting, an abstract language inscribed in the twists and turns of motion-blurred neon, car brake lights and Christmas decorations. The film was assembled over the course of three years, during which Menken shot Christmas window displays and other seasonal decorations, working mostly late in the night, when she could be alone in the darkness with these vibrant beacons. ”
Freaky and not a little transcendent, “Take Off” takes the strip tease well past its usual climax. By sprinkling a little Georges Melies magic over the peep show motif, Gunvor Nelson simultaneously revels in cinema’s earliest forms while exploding the medium’s customary reliance on (and objectification of) the female body.
“Ellion Ness, a thoroughly professional stripper, goes through her paces, bares her body, and then, astonishingly and literally, transcends it. While the film makes a forceful political statement on the image of woman and the true meaning of stripping, the intergalactic transcendence of its ending locates it firmly within the mainstream of joyous humanism and stubborn optimism.” – B. Ruby Rich
A silent film of collaged and painted sequences of lovemaking between Schneemann and her then partner, composer James Tenney; observed by the cat, Kitch.
“…I wanted to see if the experience of what I saw would have any correspondence to what I felt– the intimacy of the lovemaking… And I wanted to put into that materiality of film the energies of the body, so that the film itself dissolves and recombines and is transparent and dense– as one feels during lovemaking… It is different from any pornographic work that you’ve ever seen– that’s why people are still looking at it! And there’s no objectification or fetishization of the woman.”
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