Found-footage, violence, and pedagogy: two films by
Jennifer Proctor, and
interview with Jen Proctor
by Sonia Lupher
Media artist Jennifer Proctor’s work ranges from personal to rigorously analytical, and it is always imbued with questions of spectatorship, authorship, and representation. Her films often function as conversations with film and media texts, audiences, and her predecessors or contemporaries in avant-garde filmmaking. Proctor works with experimental documentaries, handmade films, video essays, and web-based voodles (video doodles), but she is perhaps best known for her found-footage work, in particular her 2010-2012 film A Movie By Jen Proctor, a remake—or, as she also puts it, “cover”—of Bruce Conner’s seminal A Movie (1958).  [open endnotes in new window] The idea to remake A Movie came to Proctor through her teaching; she was fascinated by the ways her students reacted to the film without knowing Conner’s influential role in the U.S. avant-garde. While Proctor admits that the idea of remaking such a canonical piece seemed “ridiculous” at first, the process revealed the composition of Conner’s film in ways that had not previously been evident to Proctor as a viewer and instructor (MacDonald 86).
The process of learning through doing is crucial to Proctor’s creative, analytical, and pedagogical ventures. Because these three aspects of her work complement and influence each other, her films are most fruitfully discussed in light of their analytical and pedagogical purposes. Two of her recent films, Nothing a Little Soap and Water Can’t Fix (2017) and Am I Pretty? (2018), unite analysis and pedagogy in order to critique violence against women in particular. These two films are valuable additions to the lineages of found-footage and feminist avant-garde filmmaking practices. Their didactic motives are subtly woven into Proctor’s formal structure, predominantly in her use of repetition, which reveals and scrutinizes deleterious visual patterns of representing women’s bodies.
Like many other feminist found-footage experimental films—notably by Peggy Ahwesh, Abigail Child, Su Friedrich, and Leslie Thornton—Nothing a Little Soap and Water Can’t Fix and Am I Pretty? “engage in complex, dialectical relationships with the media and popular culture” (Wees, “Carrying On” 73). Proctor also shares with these filmmakers a critical engagement with the body, which—as Paul Arthur points out—re-emerged centrally in the work of 1980s avant-garde filmmakers such as Thornton and Friedrich, following a period of structural film that focused on the apparatus. Furthermore, Soap and Water and Am I Pretty? at once demonstrate Proctor’s creative investments and her personal perspective as a cinephile, a consumer of media, and a feminist pedagogue. Soap and Water is compiled out of footage from popular narrative cinema in order to make explicit how women’s bodies are framed in bathtubs and how the bathroom space is coded as uniquely feminine. Am I Pretty? turns to digital media; its footage is appropriated from a series of YouTube videos made by teen girls.
Soap and Water and Am I Pretty? complement each other in three primary ways. Firstly, the former emphasizes visual representation, while the latter boldly obscures the image in favor of sound. Secondly, the footage from Soap and Water is appropriated from narrative films (in other words, it focuses expressly on fiction), while Am I Pretty? appropriates material from the “confessional” genre of YouTube videos—which themselves formally recall the video diary format and serve as documents of users’ lives.  Finally, albeit in different ways, Soap and Water and Am I Pretty? both draw attention to pervasive patterns of visual objectification and internalized acceptance of violence against women in dominant media forms.
This article is principally concerned with reading Soap and Water and Am I Pretty? as companion pieces whose divergent formal preoccupations invite critical reflection on commonplace audiovisual representations of women, particularly those which encourage viewers’ passive absorption of gendered imagery and violence. I argue that Proctor’s commitment to pedagogy cannot be separated from the formal and critical objectives of her creative work: they deconstruct their respective source material in order to make visible patterns of gendered violence in dominant media without punishing viewers for enjoying the media in its original form. Instead, Proctor guides her viewers to come to certain conclusions on their own. Because Soap and Water and Am I Pretty? share objectives and strategies with video essays, it is also illuminating to consider the two films’ ideological objectives alongside video essay scholarship, even though they cannot neatly be categorized in this way. In the following article, I will examine how these profoundly pedagogic films inherit and evince the legacies of feminist avant-garde filmmaking and analytical traditions of academic film study.
|On the title page, “Soap and Water” appears alone and the other words fade in around it.||Am I Pretty? shares similarities with the Soap and Water title sequence, particularly in its use of pink and purple colors to denote feminine-coded colors and conventions.|