Cut, no. 29, February 1984, pp. 31-33
Now in the third year of the second decade of the second wave of feminism, two new books about feminism and film appear. Because film books go out of print almost instantly, and because some of the important early articles on feminism and film appeared in no-longer-living periodicals, it is easy to lose sight of our brief history. On this score, both books offer persuasive but limited accounts of what has gone before. Both Ann Kaplan and Annette Kuhn construct historical accounts of feminist film criticism which begin with the U.S.-based "sociological" approach to films, which they see as laudable for its good intentions but hopelessly inadequate to deal with crucial questions of cinematic specificity. Neither Kaplan nor Kuhn specifies who these well-intentioned but incompetent beginners were (Molly Haskell? Joan Mellen? Marjorie Rosen? Beverly Houston and Marsha Kinder? Ruth McCormick?). But it is quite clear who the intervening heroes were, namely the structural-semiotic-psychoanalytic women associated with the English publication Screen in the mid-1970s, particularly Claire Johnston and Laura Mulvey. Heavily influenced by Barthes, Freud, Lacan, Metz, Wollen, and the boys of the Cahiers du cinéma school, these women constructed the grammar for subsequent theorists of feminism and film in England and the United States (and, more recently, in Canada and elsewhere). Although both Kaplan and Kuhn show traces of rebellion against their heroic mothers, both make it clear that theirs is the central, mainstream direction of English-language feminist film theory and criticism, and that any other work is at best peripheral, worthy of passing mention if it can be used to support the mainstream.
And so commences a familiar story. A narrative pattern is established. One begins with a definition of terms and a brief history of the sociology to semiology progression of the field. Then one gets right into analyzing the dominant discourse of Hollywood cinema, concentrating primarily on the notions of images of women as spectacle and as fetishized object of a dominant, i.e., male, gaze. Half a book or so later, one looks at the possibility of feminist alternatives. Socialist realism and feminist documentary are dutifully discussed and seen as laudable, especially when they depict poor and/or Third World women, but ultimately dismissed as dangerous because of the "sociological trap" they represent. The major sin in this version of film aesthetics is transparency, or not being self-reflective and avant-garde. Both books also consider one example of a Third World feminist film, Sara Gomez's ONE WAY OR ANOTHER, and report that it is very interesting and exciting and perhaps points to all sorts of non-capitalist possibilities.
At this point Kaplan diverges from Kuhn, and considers two European feature films by women, Marguerite Duras' NATHALIE GRANGER and Margarethe von Trotta's MARIANNE AND JULIANE. (Kuhn's innovation is a chapter on how to analyze pornography from a feminist, post-structuralist perspective. She includes three examples of "soft porn": Nelly Kaplan's NEA (which hardly seems encompassed by the term), RAPE OF LOVE by the French woman director Yannick Bellon, and DRESSED TO KILL by Brian de Palma.) Kaplan finds the two European films fascinating but problematic.
She turns, like Kuhn, with evident relief, to the only really acceptable alternative to Hollywood (which certainly has its charms for these critics), the notion of "feminist counter-cinema" as initially mapped out by Claire Johnston and as exemplified in the film work of Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen. In addition to the Mulvey/Wollen films, Yvonne Rainer's LIVES OF PERFORMERS, the English theory-based film by Sally Potter, THRILLER, and Michelle Citron's DAUGHTER RITE are examined in some detail by both Kaplan and Kuhn as examples of feminist counter-cinema. Both books conclude with remarks about contexts of production and distribution for feminist counter-cinema, and Kaplan brings to narrative completion a theme she has been developing throughout her book, about the importance of the theme of mothering for feminist filmmakers and critics.
More so than Annette Kuhn, who focuses on presenting a lucid account of the development and present state of U.K.-based poststructural feminist film criticism, Ann Kaplan offers a number of interesting points of possible divergence from the mainstream. In doing so, she offers glimpses to the careful reader a fact that Kuhn's book is more successful in screening from view (pun intended). That is, what this criticism has constructed is no more nor less than a dominant discourse of "feminist film criticism and theory." It is now a discourse which erases or relegates to the margins work not conceived or constructed within that discourse.
Perhaps because she is situated in the U.S. and therefore more vulnerable than the English-based Kuhn to the criticism of U.S. feminists, Ann Kaplan is careful to take note of the recurrent indications of other directions open to feminist film critics. In conjunction with this tendency, she also seems more aware than Kuhn of some basic weaknesses in the school of criticism which she nevertheless clings to as providing the only coherent, codified set of rules around.
I think both Kuhn and Kaplan have written books of interest to feminists and film theorists. Even with all the similarities and overlappings, each makes a distinctive contribution worth reading and considering. I also think that both books, the only books published recently on the subject, present a serious danger if taken at face value, as representing the central and most important work in feminist film theory and criticism, since they both are aimed at an audience not previously familiar with the field.
There is nothing like a mainstream to bring out the marginalism in this critic. Consequently) my approach to Ann Kaplan's book, the one I was asked to review, is, literally, to write in the margins, to reintroduce an alternative discourse to her dominant discourse, and to take issue with her precisely at those points where her discourse is weakest from internal pressure, where it threatens, as Claire Johnston says of certain Hollywood films, to crack itself open from within.
My memories of the beginnings of feminist film criticism go back further than Kaplan's "about ten years" (written in January 1983). Women did take issue — often in conversation, sometimes in print in local and progressive publications — about films’ sexual politics. Violent misogyny in STRAW DOGS and CLOCKWORK ORANGE did not go unnoticed. And Bergman and Fellini's portrayals of women were certainly open to varied discussion. Many women reviewers remarked on the wave of male buddy films. People familiar with the North American experimental scene and the history of animation could name more than a handful of women filmmakers.
In the winter of 1971-72 Film Library Quarterly and Take One, a now defunct Canadian film magazine, published special issues on women and film. Both carried articles describing recent films made by women in specifically cinematic terms, as well as in terms of the kinds of roles played by women actors and their connections with "real" women's lives. There was also a strong interest in documenting a newly discovered history of women's filmmaking, going right back to the earliest days of cinema.
Regina Cornwell wrote an article for Film Library Quarterly on the work of Maya Deren and Germaine Dulac within the history of avant-garde cinema. This study provided a springboard for more extended analyses of the work of both of these important and influential women directors. While not specifically situating her discussion in a feminist context, Cornwell clearly establishes the feminist background of Dulac, who "began her career as a writer for La Française in 1909 and later for La Fronde, both feminist journals." Cornwall also speculates "whether it was her strong belief in the postulates of feminism which gave her the courage to launch her own film company in 1915." Elsewhere in the article Cornwell describes Dulac's strong interest in experimenting with cinematic technique, and refers to, in THE SMILING MADAME BEUDET, DuLac’s
Eleven years later, Kaplan writes in Women and Film that Dulac was "not feminist in our contemporary sense," because "there was no full-fledged movement in France and no specific attention to feminism in relation to representation." In addition, Kaplan writes:
One might conclude that Kaplan believes that there is only one "feminism," which can be specified “exactly," and that it rests on identification of men as "the enemy."
Kaplan goes on to contrast Dulac and Deren:
Presumably, then, poetry is opposed to violence, harshness, force; it is quiet and gentle. Kaplan's history is shaky here and elsewhere in her book, as is her aesthetic judgment, which seems to be based on some unarticulated moral sense rather than on any clearly defined categories. Again, on Michelle Citron's DAUGHTER RITE:
Yet many women viewers of the film do report siding with the daughters. And some are critical of it for supposedly trashing the mother. Should we say these women are wrong? Or is the film perhaps open to multiple interpretation?
What are Kaplan's categories?
I.e., what follows is unquestionable, part of "current theory," therefore, of "knowledge." This is part of what follows:
Because Kaplan does not specify who these "early feminist film critics" were, it is difficult to argue with her assertion. Nevertheless, looking back over early issues of Women and Film, the California magazine which began publication in 1972, I find nothing like the sociological monolith Kaplan infers. Instead, there is a range of approaches, many of which share the position that there are important connections (rather than blurring distinctions) between “the realm of lived experience” and “that of representation.” The first issue of Women and Film carried an editorial statement:
And the editors of Women and Film sought out articles, reviews, festival reports, news of new work and work-in-progress, with a particular concern for Third World film, issues of race and class in women's lives, and grass roots media productions.
In a later issue of Women & Film, Julia Lesage outlined the premises for a feminist film criticism which is multidisciplinary, politically responsible, and cinematically specific ("Feminist Film Criticism: Theory and Practice," 1974):
Lesage goes on to describe a schema of the "total process" of film, "from its inception to its reception by an audience," a schema developed with Chuck Kleinhans, which seems much more useful and logically coherent than the following distinction proposed nine years later by Kaplan:
“CINEMATIC VERSUS THE EXTRA-CINEMATIC”
“Keeping this distinction clearly in mind prevents us from falling into the trap of sociological critics, and linking screen image and lived experience too simplistically. (a) The cinematic refers to all that goes on the screen and to what happens between screen image and spectator (what results from the cinematic apparatus). (b) The extra-cinematic refers to discussion about, for example:
What makes "what happens between screen image and spectator" cinematic, but not what happens between filmmaker and screen images? Can "what results from the cinematic apparatus" be separated from the spectator’s life? If so, how? If not, why is the director’s life less relevant? For instance, most discussions of Dorothy Arzner's films, especially those by the English school, carefully avoid any mention of Arzner's appearance in relation to some of the images in her films. Lengthy analyses of DANCE, GIRL, DANCE ignore the fact that while the "main" characters, Judy and Bubbles, are recurrently placed as immature within the context of the film, there are two "minor" characters who both dress and look remarkably similar to Arzner herself (i.e., tailored, "mannish," in the manner of Radclyffe Hall and other famous lesbians of the time). The film places these characters as mature, single, independent women. They are crucial to the career of young Judy and are clearly seen as oppressed by social stereotyping, of which they are contemptuous. Such a reading provides a whole new way of relating to the film and to other Arzner films, encouraging a discussion of lesbian stereotypes, relations between lesbians and heterosexual women as presented in various films and as perceived by any specific contemporary audience.
My own work in feminist film has been different from the Kaplan-Kuhn orthodoxy. From the early 70s on, I have researched and written primarily on films made by women on the assumption that one of the first tasks of feminist criticism is to find our history and examine the broad range of contemporary work. When I've written on commercial cinema by men, generally it's been for the feminist press. And I've made several films and worked with women on several. I've also attended many women's film festivals and events and met many different women media makers in the process: in commercial and noncommercial areas, struggling within guilds, unions and bureaucracies, teaching in high schools and community colleges, working in distribution and exhibition, and with lots of women who just love to go to the movies. And taught, lectured, conferences, festivalled, panelled, and so forth, maintaining a critical stance to the university, especially when working in one. From this experience I've found excitement, energy, and a broad range of experience, taste, activity, and creative work among women. But I sense little of that in the English group, which, instead of looking at women's work seems to be looking over its shoulder at the male academic gaze for approval.
What Kaplan's, and Kuhn's, and Johnston's and Mulvey's critical discourse has done has been consistently to deny the value of exploring and validating the various and multi-faceted contributions of women past and present, to cinema and criticism, in terms of the real needs of women now. These critics insist instead on a rigidly determined pattern of assessment and reassessment of the same old Hollywood films, followed by valorization of a handful of women's films which are deemed acceptable because they fit a narrow definition of "feminist counter cinema." For example, in 1973 Claire Johnston declared (actually in direct opposition to my work on Agnes Varda's films) that
The result of this dictum has been to validate analyzing Hollywood cinema as the prime task for aspiring young feminist academics (with some attention allowed to a remarkably small range of women's experimental work which easily fits into the high-art gallery scene). Implicitly, such a project assumes that we women have to pay attention to men's institutions rather than women's accomplishments, rebellions, and resistance to the dominant order. It assumes we have to be like men, speak in their recently fashionable Lacanian psychoanalytic way and not threaten their egos and priorities. It assumes that looking at women's creative work is “ghettoization,” when it's men who maintain our marginalization by not taking women's work seriously. It assumes that knowledge comes out of academic theory and couldn't possibly exist in the media work and political practice of the women's movement and feminist art. It assumes there are no problems with existing academic institutions and that disciplinary specialization, denial of activism, and increasing professionalism represent progress. Taken together these assumptions amount to a fashionable ideological version of the "dress for success" suit for the aspiring career woman.
Ten years later, in 1983, Kaplan writes, about feminist critics who have questioned the validity of this approach:
Initially suggesting that Lesage and Rich lead in a "fruitful direction" (but ignoring that direction), 109 pages later Kaplan refutes them, without saying so explicitly (just as she appears to respect sociological methods, then refers to the 'sociological trap"):
What, indeed, is there "beyond" the vicious circle of Hollywood oppression and semi psychological counter-oppression? Kaplan not only offers no way out, she seals the circle:
Apparently lesbians and bisexual women do not exist. HOWEVER, remember that Kaplan is dutiful about recording some of her opposition:
Although this other position might be considered important in the light of Kaplan's own arguments, she devotes all of three paragraphs later in the book to a hasty description of some lesbian films, having elsewhere, as we have seen, effectively denied the possibility that such films can function on their own terms. She also ignores the entire issue of representations of lesbians and representations of various forms of female bonding in films not explicitly identified as lesbian, an issue, as Julia Lesage has argued in her article on CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING (Jump Cut 24/25), of crucial importance to feminists. (Certainly Kaplan is not alone among the English group in being ill at ease with lesbian issues. Mulvey and Wollen's first film, PENTHESILEA, is a remarkably hostile assault on cultural lesbian politics and aesthetics.)
And so Kaplan returns to the main "plot," as I quaintly call it, of her book:
Ignoring for the moment the large body of literature on the subject of mothering produced by feminists, I wonder why Kaplan ignores the work of Marta Meszaros, who has returned over and over again to the depiction of mother-daughter issues in her socialist feminist feature films, a major body of work accorded the most passing of references by Kaplan. (Meszaros is lumped together with Andrzej Wajda, Karoly Makk, and Pal Gabor as an Eastern European realist.)
Lest it occur to any of us, as it did to Adrienne Rich, that there is another place to start rethinking sex difference, Kaplan brings us to the gap:
Careful, here, in pointing to a possible gap, she's already sealed off the possibility of genuinely subversive lesbian films. Now she seals off the gap she has apparently opened:
Has patriarchy's discourse controlled lesbian sexuality? Kaplan makes it sound like a system of total control. Patriarchy has influenced lesbian sexuality. But the lives and experiences of many lesbians give evidence of resistance, individual and collective, to the dominant order. I suggest a careful reading of Lillian Faderman's excellent book, Surpassing the Love of Men, for a thorough analysis of ways in which patriarchy has and has not been able to “control female sexuality, including lesbian relations." Ruby Rich's article on MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM and Michelle Citron's article on Jan Oxenberg's films (both in jump Cut 24/25) supply specific cinematic evidence of some possibilities of uncontrolled (gasp!) female sexuality, including lesbian relations.
Lesbians are not the only women marginalized by Kaplan's approach. Again, she indicates awareness of a problem, and then refuses to respond appropriately:
So, although 4 (four) films by British theorists are given detailed attention (two of these are also discussed by Kuhn, who also discusses ONE WAY OR ANOTHER, and these films have also received considerable attention elsewhere), Kaplan finds room for only one "non-capitalist," "Third World" film. This is racism. It is racism because white middle class professional women like Kaplan and myself have a responsibility and obligation to seek out work by women of color, and if we don't find it easily, to ask why. And to help more of it come into being.
Discussing European work, Kaplan says,
This very simplistic account ignores both shorts, experimental and documentary, by European women, also experimental shorts and features by American women. It totally leaves out Canadian, Quebec, Japanese, Australian, African, Latin American, etc., films by women, sealing off without consideration possible alternatives to the system of dominance and reaction she has set up as all-encompassing.
Kaplan also writes off work by women within the one dominant system she has looked at:
I don't know what she means by "male connections” — most women working outside of lesbian separatist communities do have them, including most of the theorists and film makers Kaplan valorizes. While the one woman Kaplan mentions (Claudia Weill) who has worked in Hollywood in recent years is certainly a possible subject for feminist criticism on the basis of a certain degree of homophobia in her work, Weill has clearly made films about women, as have Lee Grant, Goldie Hawn, Jane Fonda, and Martha Coolidge. Simply to write off their work on the basis of an erroneous generalization is as destructive and self-limiting as Claire Johnston's early counter-assertion to my interest in the films of Agnes Varda that they "mark a retrograde step in women's cinema," and thereby, by implication, deserve no further analysis. My own sense is that constructive criticism of as many films by contemporary women as possible is an urgent priority for feminist film criticism. This has not been a priority of the dominant discourse school which has also been the dominant publication and conference school since the demise of Women & Film. Meanwhile, women all over the world continue to make films, feature films, experimental, documentary, animation, overlapping category films, and, in general, critical silence prevails from the "expanding" field of "feminist film criticism." Once again, Kaplan claims much more scope and openness than he in fact demonstrates:
Fortunately, women filmmakers have never been deterred by the absence of useful criticism. They have proceeded to use forms familiar and unfamiliar to people in new ways that challenge old concepts, while still permitting people to understand what is going on. Nell Shipman did this with melodrama, as did Lois Weber. Dulac did it in THE SMILING MADAME BEUDET and Sagan did it in MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM. Preobajenskaya with THE PEASANT WOMEN OF RYAZAN, Shirley Clarke with PORTRAIT OF JASON, Agnes Varda with LIONS' LOVE, Joyce Wieland with WATER SARK, RAT LIFE AND DIET IN NORTH AMERICA, SOLIDARITY, and THE FAR SHORE, Mireille Dansereau with LA VIE REVÉE, Nelly Kaplan, Marta Meszaros, Liliana Cavani … Why are these names not familiar wherever courses on women in film are taught, or film series run, or new books published which claim to represent feminist film criticism?
Annette Kuhn makes a valuable suggestion in Women's Pictures, that any text can become a feminist text through the process of reading. If this is so, why not take on the double barreled, doubly valuable task of validating women's achievements in cinema at the same time as bringing feminist perspectives to bear on their work? It is the films which are written about which get used in classes and film series, so that prints remain in circulation and are occasionally acquired by archives. I see little need to ensure that BLONDE VENUS, CAMILLE, LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR, or PSYCHO remain available for film study. On the other hand, many of the films I saw for the first and only time at one or another of the early women's film festivals, in New York, Edinburgh, London, Paris, Chicago, Toronto, films which permanently altered and expanded my own imagination of what cinema could accomplish, remain unavailable to most people. Some have disappeared from sight altogether. Most discouraging of all is the difficulty encountered by women who have made feminist documentary and experimental films and would like to have them reviewed with the care and feminist critical perspective they deserve.
Finally, I believe there is a large and growing audience of women who desire and deserve to have feminist criticism available which offers, as Julia Lesage put it, "a way to evaluate cinema themselves." Semiology and structuralism have certainly provided some very useful tools for this endeavor. Feminist theory of psychoanalysis can also be useful, as is feminist theory of sociology, politics, and anthropology. I am more cautious about advocating the usefulness of Lacanian psychology. For example, Laura Mulvey, a critic and filmmaker for whom I have great respect, managed to produce a full length article on DUEL IN THE SUN, analyzed in terms of the psychoanalytic positioning of the female spectator to show the impossible dilemma of the female caught between stereotypes. But she never once mentioned the film’s deep, pervasive racism, inextricably intertwined with the woman's characterization.
It is time for a more widespread recognition, among those of us who call ourselves feminist film theorists and critics, that the best theory emerges from practice and is designed to be available to practitioners and flexible in response to change. That the purpose of distinguishing between daily life and cinematic representation is to understand better the relations between them. That understanding is the basis of what lies beyond dominant discourse — it begins in the margins and moves, continually, beyond. Here's to the beyond!