Afterimages
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Afterimages

On Cinema, Women and Changing Times

Laura Mulvey

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eBook - ePub

Afterimages

On Cinema, Women and Changing Times

Laura Mulvey

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About This Book

Marking a return for Laura Mulvey to questions of film theory and feminism, as well as a reconsideration of new and old film technologies, this urgent and compelling collection of essays is essential reading for anyone interested in the power and pleasures of moving images.Its title, Afterimages, alludes to the dislocation of time that runs through many of the films and works it discusses as well as to the way we view them. Beginning with a section on the theme of woman as spectacle, a shift in focus leads to films from across the globe, directed by women and about women, all adopting radical cinematic strategies. Mulvey goes on to consider moving image works made for art galleries, arguing that the aesthetics of cinema have persisted into this environment.Structured in three main parts, Afterimages also features an appendix of ten frequently asked questions on her classic feminist essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, " in which Mulvey addresses questions of spectatorship, autonomy, and identity that are crucial to our era today.

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Year
2019
ISBN
9781789141634
PART ONE: A LAST CHAPTER

INTRODUCTION: FINAL THOUGHTS ON WOMAN AS SPECTACLE

The essays in this section finally draw a line under my long-standing engagement with Hollywood and its images of women. While they were all written recently, some strands and themes reach back to much earlier phases in my work, which I will trace later in this introduction. But first, the end of the line. I have often described the way that I called upon my familiarity with Hollywood, the ‘expertise’ of a 1960s film fan, when, influenced by feminism, I wrote about woman as spectacle in the early 1970s. Although I then turned away from spectacle to women and melodrama, 1950s Hollywood was still my main point of reference, above all the films of Douglas Sirk. But as alternative cinemas and avant-garde film came to absorb more of my attention, I lost interest in Hollywood until the mid-1990s, when digital technology enhanced and changed film spectatorship. Then, I went back to rediscover my favourite Hollywood films, perhaps simply nostalgically, perhaps as a tribute to those directors who could so brilliantly conjure up cinema’s particular spell.
But a return to Hollywood of the studio system was to see films through a changed political perspective as well as new technologies of spectatorship. In a trenchant critique, bell hooks has pointed out that Hollywood’s all-encompassing whiteness had never been addressed by white feminist film theory. On the other hand, she discussed the way that an investigative or ‘oppositional gaze’ had been habitual for black women, long before white feminism discovered its own mode of distance and critique. ‘Whether it was Birth of a Nation or Shirley Temple shows, we knew that white womanhood was the racialised sexual difference occupying the place of stardom in mainstream narrative film. We assumed white women knew it too.’1
Speaking solely for myself, I only gradually began to realize the way that racial presence and absence dominated the Hollywood screen, with the necessary implication that the excessive investment in the female star as spectacle is symptomatic of racial as well as male sexual anxiety. Thus the female star as fetish, deflecting the male gaze from those aspects of the female body that provoke anxiety, condenses with a white fetishism, deflecting with glamour the anxiety provoked by racial difference. While representations of gender were so obviously on the surface of Hollywood studio-system cinema, James Snead has pointed out that, alongside the stereotyping of black people on the screen, Hollywood’s phobic relation to race is manifested through absence: the almost complete erasure of African American presence on the screen.2 An analysis of this kind of sexual and racial fetishism demands a wider political and historical context, a juxtaposition of screen images with the realities of American life; but just as psychoanalysis needs politics, so psychoanalysis illuminates images of and attitudes to race as well as sex.
The essays in Part One were written separately from each other, out of different circumstances and contexts, but across all four there are considerable overlapping themes, sometimes recurring from essay to essay. And as, inevitably, some ideas lead back to my earlier work, I would like to trace their links. In 2015, the fortieth anniversary of ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, I found myself returning yet again (having done so from time to time in the intervening decades) to the 1970s, to the conjuncture of feminism, Hollywood and Freudian psychoanalysis. In this context, I began to think about Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo and the extraordinary importance it held for the key concepts discussed in ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’. I was reluctant at first. Vertigo had just been voted the ‘greatest film of all time’ by the previous Sight and Sound poll.3 Hitchcock had mutated from a renowned maker of cult films into a cinematic cult in his own right, as in Hitchcock (2012); the idea of ‘the Hitchcock blonde’ had also become a cliché of popular culture. However, returning to the film in 2015 and with the help of passing time, Vertigo seemed (as I discuss in the second essay of Part One) to be more complex and self-aware than I had previously realized in the early 1970s. Rather than reflecting the prevalence of the female star as signifier of sexuality and object of the voyeuristic gaze, Vertigo reflects on her fabrication, on the imbrication between femininity, illusion and film to the point of self-reflexivity.
Crucial to my return to Vertigo was the significance of blondeness as a signifier of illusion and artifice that crosses between the luminous figure of the woman and her fusion with the luminosity of the screen itself. ‘Marilyn Monroe: Emblem and Allegory of a Changing Hollywood’ thus revolves around the iconography of blondeness, and Monroe herself. The essay also returns to the past, to my discussion of Monroe in ‘Close-ups and Commodities’ (included in Fetishism and Curiosity, 1995). To make the move from the Freudian to the Marxist concept of fetishism, I wanted to place Monroe’s screen image within the economic and social context of 1950s America, within its consumerist commodity culture. As the early 1950s boom meshed with the politics of the Cold War, America invented itself as the democracy of glamour. Glamour proclaimed the desirability of American capitalism to the outside world and, inside, offered an all-American image to the newly suburbanized, commodity-consuming white population. It was against this background that Marilyn Monroe rose to stardom, supremely personifying the allure of the screen but also suggesting a metaphor for the allure of the commodity. The commodity too depended on a glamorous surface, attracting the eye of the consumer while erasing any trace of the labour power that had produced the product. The intense whiteness of Marilyn’s appearance reflected the historical moment, just before the rise of the Civil Rights movement.4 Out of the artifice of this iconography and the precariousness of its surface masquerade, Monroe’s performance comments on and foregrounds its vulnerability, suggesting a kind of self-reflexivity that I argue resounds with her later reinvention of her image and her career. It was when I returned to Hollywood and cinephilia in the late 1990s that I became fascinated by Monroe’s performance and her mastery of pose and gesture. Using the ‘delayed cinema’ of DVD spectatorship, I paused, repeated and slowed her image, moving beyond the film itself to make a video essay, analysing her ability to create stillness within movement.
Although made outside of the Hollywood system, Max Ophüls’s Lola Montès (the subject of Part One’s first essay) shares the self-reflexivity that I argue for in my essays on Vertigo and Monroe. During Ophüls’s exile in Hollywood in the 1940s, he suffered bitterly under the industry’s unrelenting regime. Back in France, his career revived and in 1955 he made Lola Montès, his first colour and wide-screen production. Gender (masculinity as well as femininity) had always been central to his films, but, unlike Hitchcock, the highly stylized female star had no place in Ophüls’s own highly stylized cinema. There are, however, some parallels between the two directors. Both had long and international careers in cinema when they made Vertigo and Lola Montès. In spite of differences in style and iconography, their mastery of film form had come to be entwined with their mastery of films about women, as dramatic focus and as cinematic attraction. With the decline of cinema in general as the dominant mode of popular entertainment, it seems unsurprising, but also moving, that Hitchcock and Ophüls should, at that particular moment of their histories and film history, make these self-reflexive movies. Hitchcock focused more on the psychoanalytic and the woman’s image as fetish; Ophüls focused more on the economic and the fetishization of the female star as commodity. Lola Montès and Vertigo were commercial failures, not helped by their thematic darkness and narrative obscurity.5 These stories of women trapped in the cages of spectacle are told allegorically, although, in retrospect, their meanings are not that hidden. In Lola Montès, set in a site of entertainment and quite literally about woman as spectacle, the allegory is not hard to decipher. Vertigo focuses on how a woman’s image is structured and fabricated precisely according to male desire. While the film references film spectatorship, the allegory revolves particularly around the power of illusion, that of the woman and that of cinema alike.
In all three chapters about the female star image, I return to a key theme of my 2006 book Death 24x a Second: Stillness in the Moving Image. Beyond self-reflexive content, that is, how these star images are constructed and displayed as spectacle, their figures have a self-reflexive relation to the film machine itself. The performances and screen presence of Marilyn Monroe, Martine Carol as Ophüls’s Lola, and Kim Novak as Vertigo’s Madeleine, share a certain mechanization of the body, a draining away of the natural and the human. Their highly stylized bodily movements evoke, in a kind of metonymical reference, the jerky progression of the filmstrip through the projector, as each frame is paused for a 24th of a second in front of the beam of light. In each case, I suggest that these figurations descend from the beautiful automaton, in legend and mechanical experiment, a fascinating fusion of the animate and the inanimate that was finally realized by the cinema. Furthermore, all three figures are under the shadow of death (if, in Marilyn’s case, retrospectively) so that film’s illusion of movement further conjures up the illusion of the dead repeating their once-upon-a-time gestures in an illusion of life. Although the term has become a cliché, the idea of ‘the ghost in the machine’ sums up these figures’ embodiment of cinema’s paradox.
My essay on the three Cinecittà scenes in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris forms an afterword to Part One. In the first instance, these scenes allow me to comment on Godard’s commentary on the end of Hollywood, returning to my Cahiers du cinéma inspired film-going of the 1960s, my own cinephile thoughts and memories both inspired by and superimposed onto his. But the importance of quotation and reference in Le Mépris gives the film a further dimension, out of the past and towards a then unforeseen future. Quotation fragments homogeneity, always tending to distract from the diegetic forward flow of a film: when it erupts into a present text, the citation cannot help but bring its past with it. Although Godard inserts his references visually, or in dialogue, into Le Mépris, the film’s intense reflection on cinema history prefigures a later era in which cinema would be able to quote itself. The pioneering and prime example would be Godard’s own Histoire(s) du cinéma, made from the late 1980s into the 1990s, in which he reflects back critically on the great days of Hollywood that he mourned in Le Mépris.
Jacques Rancière points out that in the very fragmentation of Histoire(s) du cinéma Godard portrayed cinema’s development into a medium of mass entertainment as a betrayal of its true nature:
it is presented as having relinquished its vocation as a vision machine relating phenomena to each other to become a glamorous machine in the service of ‘stories’: the ones in Hollywood scripts or the ones put out by destructive dictatorships bent on reshaping peoples. Histoire(s) is thus an enterprise of redemption: Godard’s fragmentation is intended to deliver images and their potential from subjection to stories. By inventing original relationships between films, photographs, paintings, newsreels, music and so on, it returns retrospectively to cinema the role of revealer and communicator which it had betrayed by enslaving itself to the story industry.
That is why this redemption of the past also announces the end of the history of cinema. The task of a modern cinema, a cinema that has taken the measure of its own historical utopia, would perhaps be to return to the disjunction of the gaze and movement, to re-explore the contradictory powers of the stoppages, delays and disconnections of the gaze.6
With these words, Rancière evokes the recent explosion of the audiovisual essay. From a personal perspective, it was precisely out of these ‘stoppages, delays and disconnections of the gaze’ that I visualized new forms of spectatorship in Death 24x a Second that then led me to make the ‘re-mix’ of Marilyn Monroe in thirty seconds of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes that I discuss in this part’s third essay. And this kind of fragmentation can also, perhaps, redeem moments of cinematic greatness from Hollywood’s heyday.

MAX OPHÜLS, LOLA MONTÈS

[Ophüls] told me that he included, systematically, in the script of Lola Montès everything that he had found disturbing and troubling in the previous three months: Hollywood divorces, Judy Garland’s suicide attempt, the Rita Hayworth incident, the American three-ring circuses, Cinemascope and Cinerama, competitive bidding over publicity, the hyperbole of modern life.
François Truffaut, ‘Max Ophüls est mort’, in Les Films de ma vie (1975)
Lola Montès (1955), Max Ophüls’s last film, is a complex weave of allegory and metaphor, a bitter, critical and satirical vision of the entertainment industry, that is, of his own world. Through the figure of Lola (played by Martine Carol), he created his most sustained reflection on the female star as spectacle and commodity and as an image for circulation and exchange. And the figure of the Ringmaster (played by Peter Ustinov) personifies the iron and unbending rules that drive and govern entertainment as a commercial machine.
Ophüls based the film loosely on the real-life Lola Montez. An Irish-born dancer and courtesan, Montez achieved notoriety in the mid-nineteenth century through her scandalous love affairs and became what would now be known as a ‘celebrity’.1 Drawing minimally on her public performances in later life, Ophüls set the film in a circus in the U.S. where Lola has been reduced to earning her living by re-enacting, in a series of highly staged acrobatic acts, the more sensational episodes of her life. Narrated and orchestrated by the Ringmaster, the tableaux flamboyantly fill the space of the circus, reaching to its very top with Lola’s rise to power and fame, while...

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