Frames of feminism; some thoughts on feminist cinema
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‘We felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy.’ - The Virgin Suicides, 1999 dir. Sofia Coppola
In the latest Artforum, Ara Osterweil (author of Flesh Cinema (Manchester University Press, 2014) critiques the new work of Sophie Mayer, Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema (I.B. Tauris, 2016). In her new publication, Mayer celebrates films such as Frozen, 2013 and Chantal Ackerman’s masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, 1976 that sit at opposite ends of the kitsch/niche cinema scale. It is evident that, in 2016, a breadth of cinema exists away from the male canon and towards notions of female subjectivity and spectatorship, political practice and the growing appropriation of popular art forms for female and feminist means.
The point the article tries to make is that, feminist film culture is envisioned through various genres, critics and regions. Whether it be American animated films for children, or longue durée Belgian art house films, the ways in which female auteurs and writers infiltrate cinema and film culture is diverse and widespread. This new coherent scholarship of the progression of femme-film is accounted for in the aforementioned publication, spanning world-wide cinema in a strict post-9/11 context, branching existing notions of feminist cinema together and angling new notions of political film. The film also points to the simultaneity of gender politics and war, and dedicates lengthly passages to films by women from the middle east, who claim that girl-hood exists in the framework of [masculine and colonial] war and violence, and the two are intertwined as both struggles for peace, democracy and subjectivity.
The feminist potential of moving image was realised, but never finalised, with the initial introduction of video and film making to avant-garde practice in the mid sixties. However, the explicit male rendering of film (which came before the experimental in the form of Hollywood cinema) deemed it almost always a macho-medium. Artists such as Carolee Schneeman and Laura Mulvey used film to make subversions and criticisms of it’s patriarchal settings and comment on the phallocentric societal constructs and acceptance of war in mass culture (see Riddles of the Sphinx, 1977 and Viet-flakes, 1965 respectively). I am writing about this now as, in 2016, 50 years after the introduction of moving image into fine art practice and 40 years after the peak of the feminist movement, we are seeing a theorisation of these important feminist works in a coherent intellectual model.
Moving image is an inherent genre of self portraiture and self positioning. It is therefore, reliant on the psychoanalytic readings and theories that were reborn, reconfigured and rethought contemporaneous to its conception. In Europe, and subsequently in America, artists and theorists placed structural systems and subjectivity as the forefront of art focus and production. Consequently, the mediums of video and film were occupied and theorised with the psychoanalytic notions of self, other, positioning and of course, experimenting with the new medium of video. Rosalind Krauss rejoined Lacan’s notion of the mirror stage, where she drew his notion of psychical development towards video artists, claiming that the artists both performed to and watched their projected reflection; conscious of their own to-be-looked-at-ness and their own surveillance of themselves. This aegis can be translated in feminist terms as explorations of the political self, the citizen and the revolutionary.
Mayer, like film theorist Laura Mulvey, believes that the true feminist act in cinema is the reclamation of girlhood, of female subjectivity and narratives. This then, can be applied to moving image amongst all else; auteurs use this tactic as a demonstration of their politics. Feminist moving image is not first-handedly concerned with aesthetics, rather the aesthetics come to serve the politics. Feminist moving image is an exploration, with both temporal and spatial considerations, of the relations between the conceptually unfeigned work and viewer. Just as female artists and filmmakers began to make, Barthes declared the death of the author; feminist artists reclaimed this with the birth of the political reader, and created political revolution within the confines of the exchange.