Kinetic Connections – Laura Mulvey reflects on her career as avant-garde filmmaker and feminist film critic

This post was contributed by Felicity Gee, Department of Media Arts, Royal Holloway, University of London.

On February 7th, The Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities held an afternoon event in celebration of Laura Mulvey and her influential body of work; and, as you would expect, every seat in the lecture theatre was taken. I came to Mulvey’s work via the same route that I imagine most film students to have taken, through her famous 1975 Screen essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’. The Birkbeck event, chaired by Ian Christie (Birkbeck), was a semi-retrospective of Mulveyan dialectics in feminisim and psychoanalysis, but also a look forward to new developments in film analysis. For me, the most stimulating segment was Mulvey in conversation with A.L. Rees (ICA) discussing avant-garde filmmaking in London during the late 1970s and early 1980s, an account which also seemed to prompt the majority of questions from an enthused audience.

AMY! Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, 1980, Colour 30 mins.

AMY! Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, 1980, Colour 30 mins.

This fascinating discussion peppered with frank anecdotes regarding the political climate and funding for film projects in the UK, was accompanied by a rare screening of Mulvey’s film Amy! Using melodrama’s gestural form and a self-conscious avant-garde aesthetic, the film examines the rise to stardom of the first woman to fly solo from Great Britain to Australia, Amy Johnson. Mulvey explained how she was inspired by Brecht’s dictum ‘Happy the lad that needs no heroes’, adjusting it to ‘Happy the feminism that needs no heroines’ for her portrait of Amy.  The film offers imagined scenes dramatising Amy’s reluctance to embody the role of newspaper sensation or national heroine, which are intercut with newsreel footage of the ‘real’ Amy’s public reception, ironically delivered ‘broadcast’ of newspaper headlines, and black and white footage from student film seminars. It is a collection of disparate segments that are juxtaposed to reveal Amy’s private and public identities to tragi-comic effect.

I particularly enjoyed Mulvey’s confessional anecdote on how her ‘naïve optimism’ and penchant for symmetry are thrown ‘off-kilter’ by co-director Peter Wollen’s canted patterns of composition, a combination which, for me, gives the film its counter-narrative politic while retaining a certain pathos. Mulvey’s insights into her work as a filmmaker surely augment any discussion of aesthetics and spectatorship in her more widely known film criticism. Her films have certainly been under-researched, and I hope this event will encourage scholars to engage with them further.

The session concluded with a demonstration and discussion of ideas from Mulvey’s 2006 book, Death 24x a Second, commencing with a short segment from Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life that had been stretched and slowed through freeze-framing. The video aims to reveal ‘hidden’ aspects of the film using this strategy of fragmentation, and effectively illustrates how ‘the opposing iconographies’ of spectacular and maternal femininity are staged. The Mulvey day traced a complete cycle from the manipulation of images by the filmmaker, to the suggestion that manipulation of the image now lies as much with the spectator, who has much greater control over how the film is screened. Pausing, stretching, cropping, and repetition of cinematic time is made possible by new digital formats and file sharing systems, and alters how the gaze and linear narrative function.

By the end of the session I was left slightly hypnotised by a palimpsestic image of Marilyn Monroe that had been contorted and drawn out by Mulvey’s hand, and left to repeat endlessly in the ‘twilight zone’[1] – the enigmatic celluloid repository of cultural history.


[1] Mulvey applies Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘twilight zone’ (the point at which personal memory disappears into history) to cinema: ‘On celluloid, personal and collective memories are prolonged and preserved, extending and expanding the “twilight zone”, merging individual memory with recorded history’. (Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image, 2006, 25).

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