by Gina Marchetti and Carol Slingo
Cut, no. 28, April 1983, pp. 44-46
Sharon Couzin is a Chicago-based experimental filmmaker whose output since 1970 has been fluid and strong: eleven films completed and one in progress. However, she has yet to gain national recognition from those critics and supporters who deal with the subject of experimental filmmaking. Unfortunately, Couzin's predicament is not unique. Women in all modes of film production have consistently been ignored, undervalued, and misunderstood by film scholars. Her problem is compounded because she lives away from the museum center of the country, New York, and is dedicated to the least "commercial" of all film genres, experimental film.
Since the early days of film history, women have been attracted to the aesthetic potentialities of the medium. But, unable to achieve or reach positions of control and authority within the industry, many have kept a kind of amateur standing, tucked into the category (catch-all) of "experimental." Although still partially segregated by the film culture establishment, this personal, adventurous type of filmmaking has been brought into the "Academy" by the journal Film Culture, the Anthology Film Archive, and of course by its most vocal spokesman, P. Adams Sitney. Unfortunately, with a very few exceptions, this has been an association of men, focusing on each others' interests. It has also been a closed group regionally — concentrating on New York work. Although filmmakers working in the Midwest, West and South have established their own festivals and developed regional audiences, the women in this group remain somewhat apart from other women filmmakers. But this situation will probably change.
For the most part, Sharon Couzin works within a tradition of autobiography, personal vision, and imaginative art. Her vision of these things reflects a personal view of this common ground of daily life. As such, Couzin's films can be placed within the tradition of romantic aesthetics, which still outlines the parameters of much contemporary art.
Romanticism as an aesthetic movement developed at the end of the 18th Century, reflecting a shift in Western civilization away from the feudal and into the modern bourgeois era, with its emphasis on individual achievement and acquisition opposed to rank and aristocratic privilege. Outside of questions of blood, lineage and property, the individual began to be considered unique, prized for her/his individuality, originality and singular vision. The personal realm of the home and family and the life of the "ordinary" person began to be considered apt subjects for art. The artist shifted from being a recipient of official favor to embodying "genius," acting as a misunderstood and underappreciated romantic hero, and expressing distinctive feelings and a subjective vision. The artist was allowed to stand apart from society and to criticize it, to examine it in relation to the subjective realm of dream, thought and fantasy. The interior world of the mind became the romantic artist's domain. As Hugh Honour points out in his book Romanticism, this sensibility still forms the basis of what we generally regard to be the avant-garde of our art:
Freed from the need for aristocratic patronage and, at least for those women of the privileged class, freed from the worst of domestic and farm labor, women became artists. The 19th Century produced writers such as the Bronte sisters, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Emily Dickinson. Within the writer's private world, women were allowed to express themselves according to Romanticism's aesthetic guidelines: to express their private lives, thoughts, and experiences.
Romanticism actually prizes that position in which most women of our culture find themselves: outside the domain of power, shut into a highly individual world of dreams and fantasies that have not been generally recognized because they remain outside the public, meaning male, domain. This legacy's negative aspect means the individual's exploring her/his interior world may substitute for lack of status and power in the public realm. In addition, Romanticism generally places the individual's problems over social and political concerns. Broader issues are expressed in terms of individual cases; the larger context must be inferred, e.g., as in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.(2)
The contemporary woman who chooses to work within the romantic tradition faces advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, the tradition stresses the artist's role as individual critic of the world, with privilege given to personal interpretation, sharing of the psyche, and autobiographical liberty. Some artists carry this freedom to the point at which self-criticism disappears, seeing themselves as transcendent heroes or wallowing in private neuroses. The tradition's strengths and weaknesses have an impact on romantically-oriented women artists' work.
In Visionary Cinema,(3) Sitney argues that an aesthetic position can be traced from 19th Century Romantic poetry through the work of U.S. independent filmmakers such as Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage. In an earlier generation, Deren used her camera as a privileged eye on the mundane world, giving everyday objects a symbolic, dreamlike significance. Likewise she used her body as the focal point of disturbing fantasies (AT LAND, MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON). However, when Sitney writes about Deren's work, he overlooks how she observed women's relationship to dream, fantasy, and these everyday, sexually-determined conditions of life.
Using her own psyche and dance-trained body as tools of expression, Deren makes visual those concerns that are not merely "romantically" individualistic but belong to the fantasies, nightmares and frustrations of many women. Deren explores and justifies both the position of the female artist and the experience of the woman viewer. Perhaps this is the importance of romantic aesthetics to feminism and to women as artists and as audience.
There is only one principal woman “visionary” in Sitney's history. As other male historians have done, he describes U.S. independent filmmakers as principally male. A second history demands to be written, that of all the women working in the autobiographical genre: Marie Menken, Carolee Schneeman, Barbara Hammer, and many others. Here Sharon Couzin's work is important for any discussion of women artists aesthetics which grows out of women's lived experiences in our culture.
In dealing with Couzin's work, we have chosen four films, three which were completed within the last year and an earlier one which has received national and international film festival recognition, ROSEBLOOD (1975). These films display Couzin's considerable technical skill and concentration on detail. She creates with intricately layered images. At a first screening, the viewer may find it impossible to piece together on any but a subliminal level all the subtleties and cross-references. However, unlike the new structural filmmakers who develop complexity for the sake of formal exploration (an interest mainly shared by audiences of other filmmakers), Couzin uses this technique in order to explore the personal and the private.
Probably more than any other Couzin film, ROSEBLOOD is influenced by that tradition in which Maya Deren worked. Couzin makes concrete the fleeting images of subjective experience. Like Deren, she uses a dancer's body to create dream-like impressions, explore a woman's movements in space, and make physical an ethereal world. Also like Deren, Couzin explores dream states, studies the stylized movements of ritual, and symbolically evokes myth. ROSEBLOOD focuses on the sensuality of the female body and on the artist's vision of the relation between women and nature. Consciousness of the external world of nature leads to a quest for self-awareness. Exploring nature becomes a metaphor for exploring the self and the unconscious. As in a dream, links are formed through the juxtaposition of the body with the imagery of our cultural mythology about female sexuality, forming the basis of ROSEBLOOD's meditation on women, nature, physical movement, and dream.
ROSEBLOOD's rhythm is musical and cyclical. Calm follows climax; lyrical moments follow dramatic ones. The neutral sepia tone of much of the footage is periodically disrupted by color. Key gestures — the turning of a head, the lifting of a arm — are repeated, following this rhythm as if choreographed.
The dancer's body is photographed against, or covered by, flowers, blood, seashells, water, branches. The body merges with its surroundings. Circular shapes and motions metaphorically evoke the cycles of women's lives and the seasons of nature. ROSEBLOOD is in an indirect and nontraditional way a dance. But the movements of this dance are framed and constructed not by the dancer but by the filmmaker, who pieces together gestures of arms and legs to create new forms. At one point Couzin animates torn bits of a photograph of the woman's face, and the photograph reconstitutes itself. The camera moves in relation to the dancer, in and around its subject, frequently distorted by optical effects, the fish-eye lens, kaleidoscopic mattes, and reprinted footage. The dancer's body is captured imitating the trees behind her. Her photograph floats on the surface of water, rephotographed. The filmmaker manipulates the dancer's movements to reflect and interact with both the natural world and cinematic artifice.
ROSEBLOOD as a relatively early work is very much an outgrowth of Couzin's painterly interests. Couzin was originally drawn to films as a way to explore ideas of photographic abstraction, composition, color, light and line and to go beyond painterly considerations into the realm of temporal and spatial manipulation. To this end Couzin uses considerable technical skill.
As a means toward gaining total artistic control, Couzin has mastered the optical printer, which allows her to use double exposure to spatially change images and alter time. The printer allows her to bypass the film-processing laboratory. With this freedom, she can do almost everything in her own home except the final transfers of sound on to image. She can construct within the frame, isolating those elements that interest her. By using step printing, she can relate images to each other through montage.
A TROJAN HOUSE (1977-1981) in its finished form uses some of the formal techniques of ROSEBLOOD to make a concrete, critical statement about the place of the woman artist within the male-controlled art world. Couzin's handheld camera, disturbing juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated objects, fisheye lens perceptions, and complex, unsettling sound track maintain a balance between what is humdrum reality (the house) and what is threatening nightmare. A TROJAN HOUSE experiments with narrative form in the same way that the contemporary novel has come to be an experiment with words. The sound track carries an intricate mixture of precise description, fragmentary dialogue by unidentified speakers, self-analytical commentary, quotation, poetry, music (principally by Karlheinz Stockhausen), and disjointed image-sound patterns.
The artist-protagonist's relation to the art world is explored through three principal sets of references. The first refers to the anonymous sculptor of California's Watts Towers (in actuality, Simon Rodia). These towers were made from discards, found objects, and junk — much of it domestic in nature. The second reference is to Max Ernst and Rene Magritte, painters, and the blues singer John Lee Hooker (male artists). The third is to potential threats, even violence, and to an obscure California murder story, cast within an unfinished, undefined series of descriptive passages on both sound and image track leading to alternative possibilities. Although Couzin does not reveal the murder victim's identity, the various women shown in the film are put into positions where they might be vulnerable to attack. They must combine the domestic and artistic aspects of their lives. Such a task's difficulties are shown, for instance, in shots of a woman engaging in the particularly rigorous medium of hardwood sculpture. A sequence demonstrating the dangers depicts a rock singer performing with her band while hands hold and display an array of drugs. Anxiety and apprehension are indicated by the camera's forward motion shot through a fish-eye lens and the visual eeriness surrounding familiar objects removed from familiar places.
In contrast, the artist's world within the home/HOUSE is traditionally secure and her role within the family warm and nurturing. Here there is more hope for connections between her traditional domestic-creative role and her artist role "outside." A bond of solidarity is shown between mother and daughter as the adult passes fragments of her (women's) lives to her child: scissors, hammer, photographs, and puzzle — tools of creation in both areas. These become the visual representations of the female bond. In the animated sequence shown, Couzin makes the stuff of the domestic sphere become the material for creative impulse. Using the rotoscope technique, she transforms a chair into a line drawing of itself, into a living animated house.
Couzin sees woman's creativity in a traditionally masculine sphere, however, subject to limitations not yet mastered: as, for example, in A TROJAN HOUSE's references to interrupted or abnormal relations between artists and their own mothers. Magritte's mother committed suicide. Ernst described himself as hatched from an egg. The narrator's mother is said to be “lost.” Men are seen as rejecting creativity. As mothers and as artists, women implicitly challenge men's traditionally exclusive right to be creative in the public world. This is something they have yet to overcome, as women overcome the denial of power in the public sphere.
A TROJAN HOUSE provides an elaborate architectural metaphor. It opens with images of fences, arches, doorways, gates and the elaborate colonnades of the Watts Towers with their shiny incrustations. In all senses A TROJAN HOUSE is about structure and building: how lives are ordered, how men and women build forms for themselves to contain and protect them, but also to limit and confine them, to live in and hide. This film maintains this idea by the intertitles which punctuate it: STRUCTURE/ PLACING THE WINDOWS AND DOORS/ STICKS AND STONES/ A FORMAL FAÇADE/ THE HOUSE ALIVE/ PASSAGE/ SYMMETRY RETOUCHED/ ENTOMBED. Couzin elaborates upon architectural forms, such as doorways, arches, windows — all these indicating relationships between interior and exterior space. She moves her hand-held camera up to, around, and through spaces, opening them and linking the literal forms and structures to the relation between interior life and the outer world. The important position of the camera as an eye opening out — either offering a full screen view or limited by the fisheye lens — creates a link between inner and outer life. When the image is rounded and condensed, the space created gives the subjective impression of being seen through the surface contours of an eye.
A TROJAN HOUSE is a self-reflexive work. Not only does it present a generalized portrait of the woman artist, but it specifically deals with Sharon Couzin and her position as filmmaker. Couzin's voice is on the soundtrack. She films herself, demonstrating the camera within a mirror-like doorway. She punctuates the film with shots of herself splicing pieces together to create a self-portrait with the fragments of her life. She paints her face white, reveals her image in still photographs, and like the white plaster bust of an ancient Greek woman seen lying beneath the Towers, becomes part of the narrative and visual structure of A TROJAN HOUSE.
Despite these strong images of an artist creating her art, i.e., creating this film, the ambiguity and apprehension remain. The man, the murderer, puts pieces of her life into his sculpture. Toward the end of the film the narrator intones,
This line is repeated with different potential endings. We see concrete images of a man on the run and the violence that threatens the woman's life/ work. But she must deal with violence within and without, if she is to succeed in the outside world, even if that means the man will try to enter her house, exploit her, and put her life into his own art.
But if the fictional Sharon Couzin yields some of her cups and souvenirs, it is the real Couzin who completes the film. Women participate in the arts today as never before,(4) and this film represents them. In one sense the creative act depicted in the film is extraordinary, like a bright red apple attached to a barren tree, or the birth of a child — one act which cannot be usurped. On the other hand, it is as simple and everyday as a child's spherical puzzle or a chair that dissolves into line drawing, or cutout advertisements, which are another way to order domestic life. The title A TROJAN HOUSE may, in fact, imply that the house and domestic life can be used as a weapon to enter and conquer a creative domain previously ruled by men.
DEUTSCHLAND SPIEGEL (GERMANY MIRRORED, 1979-80), even more than A TROJAN HOUSE is influenced by the New Novel. It has a convoluted, Borges-like structure and a female narrator, whose tale of an unspecified horror is told in numerous versions, varying in non-specific degrees. Her story concerns a child, a father, and family life threatened by vague militarism and scientific experiments upon people. The visuals, on the other hand, provide concrete references: to war, concentration camps, the Berlin wall, work, consumer products, technology, and fences. Again, this film has a cyclical rhythm. It repeats and expands upon or changes its visual imagery as the narrator repeats her story. Couzin creates a sinister, absurd world with rare human contacts. She intercuts her own footage with found material dating from the early sixties. In these, West German newsreel-type sequences, she contrasts an East German display of military hardware with a race run by formally dressed waiters carrying trays full of drinks, creating an abrasive juxtaposition. She counters the building of the Berlin Wall with shots of workmen laying quite ordinary bricks. A boy, possibly the child talked about in the narrative, appears in color, jumping rope: he's in training to be a boxer, a soldier, a human guinea pig, perhaps a victim. Some of the footage is over twenty years old, suggesting the archaic quality of memory. The color scenes, in contrast, suggest a "normal" present, in which the narrator continues to function.
DEUTSCHLAND SPIEGEL is fiction, less clearly autobiographical than the other films, but equally concerned that the role and work of the filmmaker be identified ("But behind the projector …"). The story may happen in Germany or anywhere, but the threat and unease pertain to our time and lives. The circular movements reinforce the theme of indoctrination; as movements become machine like, human forms become extensions of the factory. We see trays of dolls, toy cars as if on an assembly line, the boy performing repetitious activity for scientists. Sports references (fox hunt, waiters' tournament, boxing training) add an absurd dimension depicting human activity as a senseless manipulation of the body, and these references by images showing the pointless building of a stage set in the middle of the street.
Couzin's collage technique resembles Bruce Conner's in its distortion of found footage, turning ordinary events in ridiculous or sinister directions. The sense of dream hovers; the audience's perspective at any given time may be fragmented, as when the visuals and their connotations are re-interpreted by a narrator's descriptions of them. We experience a disjuncture between the images shown and the images described, a discomforting lack of consistency. As in the New Novel, the veracity of the tale told and the relation of the tale to the teller become questioned. Each variation of word and image alters our perspective on the whole, until the viewer begins to question the tale, the concept of memory, the act of storytelling, and her/his perception of events.
Furthermore, the repeated images refer to each other: automobile graveyards to lines of miniature cars: lines of toy cars to lines of manufactured dolls: lines of dolls to people endlessly waiting. Concentration camp overtones are reinforced by images of enclosure: fences, tarpaulins, narrow alleys, barbed wire, bricked-up windows. Over images of claustrophobia and manipulation, the narrator speaks of her childhood. Her early expectations were different from those of her brother as they learned adult gender roles and became indoctrinated by things as simple as toys and as complex as mass murder.
After the highly charged and implicitly horrifying material of DEUTSCHLAND SPIEGEL, Couzin's films SALVE (1981) returns to a romantic, contemplative mode similar to that of ROSEBLOOD. SALVE is an unsentimental meditation upon human mortality, the measurement of time, the passing of generations, and Couzin's constant theme — the reduction of girls' expectations as they grow up, and women's as they grow older. SALVE focuses on the initiation of one girl into the language, but not the mysteries, of patriarchal measurement — from the calculation of pi to the passage of lives into death. The child wanders through a cemetery, Chicago's Graceland, where Chicago's important and wealthy men are buried along with their mothers and wives. In one brief sequence, Couzin moves her camera past the elaborate monuments commemorating owners and managers to the anonymous markers commemorating ordinary women. The cemetery's well-kept elegance reveals society's attitudes toward death and men's dying vs. women's passing. While the girl walks between the green and gray rows of gravestones, carelessly running her fingers over the Gothic letters or playing games with rocks, her voice on the sound track tells us,
That voice off reads complex texts about mathematical theory and practice — going back to the Greeks who thought that even numbers were female, odd ones male. All the while numbers themselves are spoken, repeated, written down -seemingly part of a mystery that the girl is not privy to. Her own epitaph — like that of the women in the graveyard — may indeed be no more than "Mother" or “Wife.”
Once again Couzin emphasized a certain perspective on her subject by her personalized use of the fisheye lens and her close-up, dense, tactile exploration of objects: grave, stones, stairways, mausoleums, and windows. She contrasts the transience of childhood with images of human aspiration toward the eternal and immobile, which graves and buildings represent. She maintains a melancholy tone in SALVE by evocatively using classical music, rain imagery, and muted colors. She expresses traditional romantic notions of grief and loss to further emphasize the waste and lost potential in girl child's life.
Couzin's perspective is here at the far end of the romantic spectrum, which has as its opposite the late 19th Century patriarchal and acquisitive attitudes toward life and death which the builders of Graceland Cemetery sought to ennoble. In SALVE, DEUTSCHLAND SPIEGEL, and A TROJAN HOUSE, Couzin depicts such traditions as detrimental and destructive to women's creativity. Continuing in this vein, Couzin is now finishing WHAT EVERY WOMAN KNOWS, a film about the way women see themselves as opposed to the way society as a whole and men see them.
As Couzin is quick to point out, an audience for the kind of films she makes must be nurtured along and cultivated. Unfortunately, outside New York City, few communities provide this kind of commitment to non-traditional filmmaking. Museums neglect local people, particularly local independent filmmakers, preferring to address the known tastes of a traditionally-minded patronage.
Financial support is even harder to come by. Not only does Couzin teach in order to support herself and her family, but she also takes on occasional additional non-film work to finance special projects or new equipment. Despite this financial burden, however, she has by these means avoided any absolute ties to an educational institution for equipment or to a government grant for day-to-day living expenses. The gains, she's achieved however, do not outweigh her losses. Problems of financing and finding time to execute a project are legion, for any woman working in the experimental mode. Couzin, for example, has a full-time appointment at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She admits that although teaching has its rewards, it is still an emotionally draining and time-consuming enterprise which takes energy away from her own work.
Despite the potential drawbacks mentioned above, working with traditional romantic conventions offers distinct advantages, particularly for the woman filmmakers hoping to strike a responsive chord in other women. If they were raised in the romantic aesthetic, on Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and the poetry of Dickinson, an audience of women not necessarily familiar with avant-garde filmmaking or interested in the technical gymnastics of the experimental mode will quite easily understand and appreciate a filmmaker's work which describes their lives in a recognizable, but fresh and challenging way.(5) It is important that Sharon Couzin speaks to the often obscured, neglected or unexpressed viewpoint of socially alienated woman viewers, who may be an avant-garde audience in the making.
1. Hugh Honour, Romanticism (New York: Harper and Row, 1979), p. 210.
2. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin (New York: Harper & Row, 1979) p. 319.
3. P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Cinema (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976).
4. See Thomas B. Hess and Elizabeth C. Bader, eds., Art and Sexual Politics (New York: Macmillan, 1973); and Lucy L. Lippard, From the Center (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1976).
5. A discussion of the pros and cons of Romantic aesthetics in feminist filmmaking has been raised in terms of the films of Barbara Hammer. See "Counter-Currencies of a Lesbian Iconography" by Jacquelyn Zita and "Lesbian Cinema and Romantic Love" by Andrea Weiss in JUMP CUT, 24/25 (March 1981).