Women in Film Noir
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Women in Film Noir

E. Ann Kaplan, E. Ann Kaplan

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eBook - ePub

Women in Film Noir

E. Ann Kaplan, E. Ann Kaplan

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The first edition of 'Women in Film Noir' (1978) assembled a group of scholars and critics committed to understanding the cinema in terms of gender, sexuality, politics, psychoanalysis and semiotics. This edition is expanded to include further essays which reflect the renewed interest in Film Noir. Exploring 'neo-noir', postmodernism and other contemporary trends, new essays offer readings of, among others, 'Bound' and 'Basic Instinct', broadening the scope of the book to include questions of race and homosexuality.

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Christine Gledhill
In the second part of this book I have attempted an analysis of Klute – a ‘new American cinema’1 production starring Jane Fonda and supporting a reputedly ‘liberated’ heroine within a thriller plot structure – in terms of film noir. What my analysis attempts to describe is the ideological effect of the structural interaction between the two apparently contradictory film-making traditions implied in this description. On the one hand the film’s modernity and seriousness of theme, linking prostitution, psychotherapy and the problem of woman, places it within a humanist realist tradition of European art cinema. On the other hand, the film’s themes are cast within the plot structure and stylistic appeal of the noir thriller – an invocation of this period of the genre characteristic of the 70s – for example, Chinatown (Polanski, 1974), The Long Goodbye (Altman, 1973), Farewell My Lovely (Richards, 1975), Marlowe (Bogart, 1969).
As film noir has been largely discussed in terms of a highly elaborated visual style, of baroque stereotypes – among which a particularly virulent form of the femme fatale stands out – and of tangibly artificial, often incomprehensible plot structure, the capacity for Klute to make claims for the authenticity and progressiveness of what it says about women is worth investigating. Since my analysis is largely descriptive, what I want to do here is reflect on some of the problems such a film poses for feminist film theory. These problems turn on the different ways the critical notions ‘realism’ and ‘genre’ have been taken up by ideological analysis both in film theory and feminist criticism.
The real world and fictional production
For much feminist criticism of the cinema – especially that coming from the Women’s Movement rather than from a background of film study – the notions of realism and genre are totally opposed. While realism embraces such cultural values as ‘real life’, ‘truth’ or ‘credibility’, genre production holds negative connotations such as ‘illusion’, ‘myth’, ‘conventionality’, ‘stereotypes’. The Hollywood genres represent the fictional elaboration of a patriarchal culture which produces macho heroes and a subordinate, demeaning and objectified place for women.2
In the first instance then, if feminist criticism is not simply to set generic convention against ‘reality’, yet at the same time is to avoid a formalism that evades the issue of society with the edict ‘films refer to films’, the problem it faces is how the operation of such conventions and stereotypes are to be understood in feminist terms – at what level their meanings and ideological effect are located.
At this point two different approaches emerge, the one deriving from a humanist literary tradition, the other arising from a more recent revival of Marxist aesthetics. Criticism deriving from liberal approaches to the humanities tends to treat an art product’s fictional structures as providing aesthetic access to the work’s truth which is then evaluated in terms of how it illuminates the world. In these terms conventions and stereotypes can be read metaphorically for their immanent meaning. In the second part of my discussion of Klute, I see Diane Giddis’ analysis of the film3 as an example of such a metaphoric treatment of genre. However, recent neo-Marxist developments in feminist film theory effectively reverse the values of ‘real life’ and stereotype, changing the project of criticism from the discovery of meaning to that of uncovering the means of its production. This change in direction is set out in Claire Johnston’s seminal ‘Women’s Cinema as Counter-Cinema’4 and informs much of the writing in this contribution.
In the first instance the aim of this new critical project is greater rigour and demands that closer attention be paid to the specificities of artistic production, and particularly how character is produced by other textual operations such as narration, plot, mise en scène etc. But it also implies investigation of a different order of meaning, something I will discuss in more detail shortly.
Behind this new perspective lies a change in the epistemological status of reality and fictional production respectively. In Marxist-feminist terms reality is understood not as phenomenal forms that present themselves to our immediate perceptions but as the historical product of socio-economic forces; it is a social product of which we, as feminists, our knowledge and ideas are an equally constructed part. To understand the real world, then, it is not enough to observe life as it is lived on a day-to-day basis; nor can we call on the values preserved by human civilisation to penetrate phenomenal appearances. What we need is to conceptualise from a feminist standpoint the historical forces at work in the social formation which have produced and are continuing to produce both our material world and those phenomenal forms which appear to constitute reality.
Individual, concrete experience of oppression leads us to resist aspects of our world and provides the motive to interrogate it; but only the developing conceptual framework of feminism will enable us to locate the sources and assess the nature of patriarchy and so formulate the conditions necessary for change. In this sense feminist meaning is not immanent in the world waiting to be revealed. It is a social-sexual dynamic being produced by history.
Thus a change in the status of the real requires a corresponding change in conception of the aesthetic practice which seeks to represent the real. Language and signifying systems in general as part of a socially produced reality are similarly conceived as social products. Language, fiction and film are no longer treated as expressive tools reflecting a transparent reality, or a personal world view, or truths about the human condition; they are seen instead as socially-produced systems for signifying and organising reality, with their own specific histories and structures and so with their own capacity to produce the effects of meaning and values. Thus the ‘convincing’ character, the ‘revealing’ episode, or ‘realistic’ image of the world is not a simple reflection of ‘real life’, but a highly mediated production of fictional practice.
A critical practice for which meaning is already constituted in the world, stored up in ‘the highest achievements of mankind’, is clearly dangerous for feminism, which understands such achievements as posited on the oppressive location of woman as the unknowable other, outside history, in the realm of nature and eternal truth, man’s mysterious alter ego against whom he achieves his definition, and symbolically controls in artistic production. Thus it is arguably more important for feminist film criticism to analyse not what a film means in terms of its ‘image of women’ – measured against some supposedly objective reality or the critic’s personal predilections – but rather those mediations which produce and place that image within the total fictional structure of the film with particular ideological effects.
In other words there are two levels at which meaning can be located: one as revelation read off metaphorically as the immanent content of the film’s devices and style – of which I argue Diane Giddis’ article is an example – the second as the set of structured effects produced by the dynamic interplay of the various aesthetic, semiotic and semantic processes which constitute the ‘work’ of the film. The second level of analysis asks, according to the now familiar phrase, not ‘what is this film’s meaning?’, but ‘how is its meaning produced?’
Whereas the first approach tends towards the validation of ideology in giving meaning the status of a ‘truth’, the latter attempts to locate behind the manifest themes of a film a second order of meaning which lies not in thematic coherence but rather in the implications the structural relationships of the text have for the place of woman in patriarchy. In other words the critic does not examine the relation between a narrative device, such as male voice-over, and the heroine for its equivalence to some symbolic meaning, but rather for the way it organises the female image into a patriarchal location. What this shows us is not the expression of a truth individual women can translate in terms of an inner world, but rather an aspect of how patriarchy works. It is under this rubric that I have attempted my analysis of Klute.
The second point which emerges from the foregoing is the refusal to conceive of meaning as a static quantity residing inside the art work, waiting to be revealed by the ultimate, ‘correct’ interpretation. If meaning is a production, then the reader/critic plays a part in this production by bringing to bear on the work her/his own cultural knowledge and ideological perspective. A feminist reading reworks the text and produces meanings that would have been impossible prior to the development of the conceptual framework of feminism.
Within this context of a broad change in feminist film criticism, from the interpretation of immanent meaning to the interrogation of the production of meaning, I want now to look more closely at the way the opposition between realism and genre has been reworked in neo-Marxist feminist aesthetics.
Bourgeois ideology, artistic practice and realism
In much 1970s theoretical work on cultural production,5 the task of bourgeois ideology in western capitalist society is seen as that of masking those socio-economic contradictions which are the driving force of history – the contradictions between the forces and relations of production and consequent division of the social formation into opposing class interests. The result of such masking is to obscure the fact of society as an interrelated totality grounded on contradiction, and as a historical and social production. In bourgeois ideology the members of the social formation find themselves as isolated individuals who confront over and against them society as a pre-constituted given which appears to derive from nature. The bourgeois concept of the human condition or of human nature thus serves to ‘naturalise’ and so put beyond human control those socio-economic forces which produce the social formation, and its contradictions. Besides masking the social origins of those contradictions, bourgeois ideology finds means to produce their illusory unification through such notions as the ‘common interest’; or fundamentally antagonistic material contradictions are displaced on to idealist contradictions within bourgeois ideology which are amenable to resolution – such as the conflict between love and honour in neo-classical drama.
Having proposed the function of bourgeois ideology it is necessary to ask how this takes place in practice.
Ideology, in much recent cultural analysis, is understood in Althusser’s terms as ‘a system (with its own logic and rigour) of representations (images, myths, ideas or concepts, depending on the case) endowed with a historical existence and role within a given society’.6 In other words, the work of masking, unifying or displacing contradiction goes on at one level in the circulation of pre-formed ideas, common-sense understandings, the conventional wisdom of a given social group or society. On another level, according to Althusser’s arguments, this conventional wisdom is materialised in the way we live our daily lives. If ideology is to be defined as a system of representations that have a material organisational force in society, the issue for film theory is the role in this of art as a practice specifically developed for the purposes of aesthetic representation and distinct from other forms of signifying practice.
In this context, the notion of a realist practice takes on a sinister aspect. On one level the issue is: what is the epistemological status of the ‘reality’ that the realist artist represents? Given that the ‘representations’ of bourgeois ideology attempt to present reality as a phenomenal, unified, naturalised entity to which the individual must adapt, there is clearly an ideological pressure on the artistic producer to identify reality with the status quo. On another level, if we grant that this is frequently the case in so-called realist production, our task is to identify in particular realist practices those conventions and devices which serve both to reproduce an ideological sense of reality – masking and naturalising contradiction – and to mask their own work of artistic production. Current film theory has developed an analysis of the so-called classic text constituted in a monolithically conceived realism embracing Hollywood genres, European art cinema and TV naturalism, which claims to demonstrate how this inevitably and always takes place in any attempt to represent reality. In the end the project of representation itself is said to be based on the denial of contradiction.7
This is not the place to argue the pros and cons of a potential progressive realist practice – something I feel needs urgently to be done. But what anti-realist theory rightly draws attention to is that traditional humanist criticism, which reads artistic tex...

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Citation styles for Women in Film Noir
APA 6 Citation
Kaplan, A. (2019). Women in Film Noir (1st ed.). Bloomsbury Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1811657/women-in-film-noir-pdf (Original work published 2019)
Chicago Citation
Kaplan, Ann. (2019) 2019. Women in Film Noir. 1st ed. Bloomsbury Publishing. https://www.perlego.com/book/1811657/women-in-film-noir-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Kaplan, A. (2019) Women in Film Noir. 1st edn. Bloomsbury Publishing. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1811657/women-in-film-noir-pdf (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Kaplan, Ann. Women in Film Noir. 1st ed. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.