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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“Visual and other pleasures” by Laura Mulvey

This post is contributed by Dr. SE Barnet, an artist and Associate Lecturer at Central St. Martin’s

BIH Celebrates Laura Mulvey, Saturday 9 February 2013

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this event was the informal atmosphere of the day.  Laura Mulvey’s friends and colleagues gave a series of introductions, each introducer introducing the next introduction, acknowledging their near parody in doing so. Familiar names and faces filled the room, and of course, references to pleasure were not overlooked.

The other delight of the afternoon was seeing Mulvey’s films and videos, most of which can be difficult to find, outside of ubuweb. Seeing her videos Marilyn and on Imitation of Life were a treat, as was her extemporaneous commentary over a clip from Godard’s Le Mépris (Contempt). Her wealth of cinematic knowledge opens up film scenes to richer readings and interpretations. The term palimpsest cropped up frequently in her presentations and for good reason. Mulvey highlights what is hidden in plain sight. Commenting on a background of movie posters papering the wall behind Fritz Lang’s character of the director in Le Mépris, she enlightens us to Godard’s own influences and cinephilia of the 1950s Hollywood studio system. The film as palimpsest is not the pentimento of the painting. These traces are intentional, not reversed or negated.

Brecht’s influence was a central theme over the course of the event as well.  In Mulvey’s video on Douglas Sirk’s film Imitation of Life, she shows us the Brechtian gesture of Sirk’s mise-en-scène. Not only does she focus on the camera’s lingering close up of Lana Turner’s legs in the crane shot at the beach and the subsequent emphasis on Turner’s breasts, but through her slowing down and stopping of the scene, Mulvey shows us something quite extraordinary. With this viewing technique she demonstrates Sirk’s contrasting representations of women; white/black, spectacle/ordinary, negligent/maternal. And then she stops the scene on a frame that viewed in normal time would last less than a second. Behind Turner, in the background, a young, well-dressed black woman has taken Turner’s previous position on the stairs. And just as Turner was photographed by the man at the foot of the steps, so is this woman. Is Sirk covertly suggesting a black woman may assume a sophisticated role comparable to a white woman? This would have been a radical presentment for 1950s America. Then Turner sweeps back to the steps, knocking into the photographer as she does, re-instating her place.

The access Mulvey provides to these hidden gems comes as a result of what she describes as her preferred viewing experience. She insists a first viewing should be linear, from start to finish. But then, the viewer should let her instinct guide her viewing, lingering over those moments that pervade and prickle. Slow down and stop. Repeat. Reviewing as a methodology of informing the viewership. And then she should return to the linear viewing, now educated into the language of the film, able to derive fully the pleasure offered.

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