Photographer's self-portrait

by Claudia Gorbman

from Jump Cut, no. 28, April 1983, pp. 43-44
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1983, 2005

SUSANA is a cinematic self-portrait, from which one can glean the following information. Susana Blaustein comes from Mendosa, Argentina, where her father is a pediatrician and her mother a dentist. Her married sister lives in Sweden; her younger brother and sister Graciela in Mendosa. She left home, lived in Jerusalem for awhile, and now in her twenties, she lives in San Francisco. Graciela has visited her and tried to change Susana, whose lesbianism has been the focus of pain and frustration in relations with her family. Susana takes pictures and has made this film. The "story” is told through voice-over narration, family photos, a variety of old film footage, the director/subject's own photographic work, and filmed interviews of her sister, two former lovers, and herself.

The film begins with a brief series of photographic self-portraits. The first face smiles attractively; the second looks less assertive. In the third, an as-if-candid grimace appears, and the fourth makes Susana's face downright grotesque. This series of photographic portraits provides the kickoff for the cinematic one. Each successive interview will be framed and posed like a separate photo; but also like photos, their juxtaposition causes us to make connections beyond their borders. The photos also prepare a nice structural resonance at the end, where we see another set of photos of Susana — this time posed with another woman in each.

Virtually everyone interviewed talks about Susana in terms of images, or photography in particular. Her partner relates her childhood interest in painting. One ex-lover recounts how Susana defined stages of their relationship by creating or destroying photographic images of her. Another lover describes Susana as not accepting herself but rather having “to be a picture of someone." Graciela holds up to the camera one of her sister's more compelling photographs. It shows Susana sitting at one end of a table set for two, underneath which we see (in a superimposition) the rest of her family. "Whom is she waiting for?" asks Graciela, and we along with her, as though understanding the photograph will yield the key to the whole Susana mystery.

SUSANA's fetishization of photographic/cinematographic representation makes for an interesting thematic cement to bond its diverse voices and images. One also senses here a Godardian honesty — through reflexivity. We can approach understanding through a series of representations, but "the truth" will always elude us because of the selective and distortive nature of representation itself. Better, then, to acknowledge consciously the "lie" of the medium.

That inaugural progression from sweet to dour in the opening photos, though, remains to be explained. It leads us to suppose that in her uncompromising search for honesty about herself, the filmmaker saw behind a smiling appearance a glum, humorless essence. It's frankly not a pleasant picture to watch. Perhaps its tone arises from an effort to offer a counterpoint to the heroic genre of films about lesbianism. And although it is indeed naive to argue the necessity of "positive images" in every lesbian film, SUSANA causes us to question the political value, at least, of a film showing a lesbian who seems resolutely depressed and which does not provide further insight to make this a situation worth looking at. (We learn nothing, for example, of the cultural specificity of being a lesbian and a Latina. Perhaps her middle-class background hinders her from seeing herself as Latina, which in this country is so often a question of class as well as one of race or ethnicity.) Thus we're led to ask what inspired this film and for what audience it is conceived. The viewer might find SUSANA valid as a personal diary, a sketch of a life at a particular stage, documenting the difficulties and sadness raised within her family over her sexuality and her move away from home. Since she dedicates the film to Graciela, it can be seen as a present given to her sister so that the latter will accept the person behind it too. But its personal, political, and aesthetic dimensions seem at odds. Shown to the public, it runs the danger of being taken as an extended pout, unenlightening for anyone not directly involved.

It seems appropriate to comment on the filmmaker/protagonist as romantic hero. She is the doomed/damned artist, pursuing a quest (for what? stability? peace? identity?). The characteristics of literary romanticism are all there: the quest; "sincerity”; the lone individual at odds with roots, society, and family; the highly personal, confessional, self-indulgent tone and structure; even elements of (geographical) exoticism. We might even suggest that her photographic self-portraits serve as doppelgangers. The doubling theme is further compounded in the final series of photos of Susana paired with various lovers. The final shot, of course, shows a live-action Susana posing with a photograph of herself, implying that she and her double-image will continue to engage in mutual pursuit. Susana has chosen the role of romantic hero, then — but how ill-fitting this role seems for a woman.

Susana does smile. One smile appears in the very first still photograph — a smile that within two shots becomes a grimace and which will not be recuperated. One exception: later we see home movies of Susana with a Russian boyfriend with whom she once kept company in a vain effort to disprove her homosexuality to herself. The two of them are seen crossing a sunny street. Blaustein has slowed down the footage and reversed the motion, presumably as the filmmaker's symbolic annihilation/reversal of her heterosexual "regression." What remains in my memory, however, is the healthy smile on Susana's face as the reverse motion paradoxically makes the couple look as if they're dancing. It's ironic that in an effort to have us accept Susana as she is, SUSANA offers us no joy in the present and works to evoke nostalgic pleasure in connection with a heterosexual past.

Ultimately SUSANA is a taking of control. Blaustein, arranger and manipulator of images, makes a film to explain her present world. As arranger, of course, she has the last word, and she exercises this prerogative throughout. Emblematic of this tendency is the final scene in which Susana and Graciela converse and come to an understanding .bout their differences. Graciela, on the left, faces the camera. We may cavil at what she says (she still feels Susana has to “change”). But visually speaking she is defenseless, and we actually tend to root for her as the underdog. Susana, on the other hand, walks into the frame at right and sits in profile. During the dialogue she lights up a cigarette with ceremony and aplomb. She's buoy with the microphone and the cigarette. She gets further advantage from her attire, using the popular lesbian iconography of a dyke-vogue sport cap. Finally she exercises power here as a filmmaker. She ends the interview by walking out of the shot, leaving the camera running on her sister, who remains seated, vulnerable in her inactivity and exposure.

Is this fair? Does Blaustein know how much of herself she reveals in creating this discrepancy between the film's manifest and latent messages and values? How much does our perception of this film — any film — depend on our perception of its intent, its maker's ethos, its social purpose, its cultural-historical context? Such framing questions make SUSANA an intriguing film (with qualifications) with regard to the problematics of feminist criticism.


This review came out of a discussion with K. Boyle, P. Rand, E. Harris, K. Bosley, and T. Haasl. SUSANA is distributed by Women Make Movies, 257 W. 19th St., New York, NY 10011.