From November 4 to November 20, the Walker Art Center and the University of Minnesota will be presenting And Yet She Moves: Reviewing Feminist Cinema, a film series showcasing the diverse international cinema of the “second wave” of the feminist movement. Spanning three decades and more than five countries (including Czechoslovakia, Cuba, England, and the U.S.), these films exhibit a complex, groundbreaking intersection of eclectic themes, perspectives, and innovations.
Especially exciting are the post-film conversations these 15 audacious works will likely spark. Lively and thought-provoking, they are films that will not be soon forgotten after the lights come up. Professors from the University of Minnesota will be on hand to introduce the screenings, delineating just how bold and influential they were in the context of international cinema. In addition, Bette Gordon will be on hand to introduce her two films in the And Yet She Moves series, Variety and Empty Suitcases.
The Walker Art Center and the University of Minnesota are also collaborating on a series of blog posts meant to encourage and deepen post-film analysis and conversation. After each film, students from Paula Rabinowitz’s course, “Reviewing Feminist Cinema,” at the University of Minnesota will be posting to the Walker Film blog, contributing to what we hope will be an impassioned collective response to movies that encourage considerable reflection. For a full schedule of films in the And Yet She Moves series, visit calendar.walkerart.org—and be sure to check back on this very blog for articles and audience reflections following each of the 15 films.
To inaugurate the series and introduce the upcoming flurry of blog posts, Paige Sweet (PhD, Lecturer, Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature, University of Minnesota) has written and contributed the following essay. (She has also compiled all of the program notes for the series, collecting a wealth of eclectic, impassioned writings and analyses that are as complex and innovative as the movies to which they respond.)
And Yet She Moves: Reviewing Feminist Cinema
By Paige Sweet
Aside from sharing the loose periodizing banner of “second wave feminism,” the films that are being shown as part of the film series, And Yet She Moves, encompass a set of concerns that continue to animate feminist film theory and filmmaking. Specifically, questions of self-representation, theories of (feminine, embodied) experience, and the politics of language are examined and reworked through all of the films, which experiment with narrative structure, voice, and cinematic conventions. In addition, nearly all the films engage issues related to the economic conditions of filmmaking, whether because they were self-financed (which nearly all of them were), or because they existed at the margins of economic institution (like the films from Cuba and Czechoslovakia, which were supported by socialist state filmmaking systems).
The fact that the issues explored in these films endure as topics of feminist film scholarship might give us pause—to what degree are the feminist goals of the 1970s still with us? In what ways have they resurfaced in modified forms? But equally important is the insight the films shed on their own historical and political conditions, and the exigencies of second wave feminism. The transnational range of topics and locations, the critical assessment of class and economic inequality, and the philosophical interrogation of pleasure indicate the broad critical scope that the films examine.
There now exists something of a feminist film theory canon, which includes many essays written in the 1970s and 1980s. However, there is not exactly a feminist film canon to accompany it. This is not to suggest that there should be one (feminist scholars have amply demonstrated the problems of canonicity). Rather, as the films selected for this series suggests, it might be significantly more useful to examine a cross-section of films from the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s that display a wide range of feminist filmmaking practices and theory-in-action.
The conjunction of theory and practice that these films evidence can be seen in their mutual investments in re-thinking narrative, voice, and cinematic conventions. In terms of narrative, feminist films have sought ways of moving beyond the shadow of Oedipus. The dominant narrative structure of classical Hollywood cinema mimics Oedipus’s plight; moreover, according to Freud, the “complex” that Oedipus navigates corresponds to the path everyone must successfully navigate in order to become a “normal” subject. The neat correspondence between cinematic storytelling techniques and psycho-social processes has often been identified as limiting women’s roles on and off the screen. Perhaps most obviously, within such a narrative structure, (masculine) positions of authority are reinforced and feminine subjects are valued only as objects of desire or else vilified as sources of fear. More than simply an issue of representation, this narrative structure implicates the very language we use to communicate experience, to communicate embodiment, or to communicate period.
Undoing Oedipus, or re-working the Oedipal trappings of narrative, has thus, not surprisingly, informed many feminist film projects. Seeking another entry point into storytelling, Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen turn to the Sphinx in their film, Riddles of the Sphinx. Emphasizing verbal aspects, which are more closely related to the maternal and the (Lacanian) Imaginary, the film incorporates a plurality of voices, whose repetitions and syntactical disruptions articulate an alternative relationship to language and disperse the stable (Symbolic) subject. Věra Chytilová’s Sedmikrásky (Daises) also negates the Oedipal narrative structure. The female characters resist the masculine imperatives of desire bound up with Oedipal modes of pleasure and ways of knowing. Like Riddles, Daisies employs a “nonsense” mode of speech to inscribe a distinctly feminine articulation of desire.
Not all the films rework Oedipal structures. Bette Gordon seeks to undermine the implications of Oedipal ways of knowing from within. In Variety, for example, Gordon exploits cinematic conventions that connote what Laura Mulvey calls woman’s “to-be-looked-at-ness.” The result is a quietly powerful polemic about appropriating the act of looking in a way that emphasizes its inherent sexual dimension from the perspective of female embodiment and experience. Similarly, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, could also be called a study in looking that contests classical cinematic conventions. While there are beautiful long takes of quotidian household chores, the viewer is repeatedly denied the look that typically drives cinematic desire.
Resisting dominant cinematic forms is also what inspires Sara Gomez’s De cierta manera (One Way or Another). Disrupting the easy border between fiction films and documentary, Gomez draws on the political importance of documentary filmmaking in Cuba while troubling its claims to authenticity by enveloping it within a fictional story that deals with race, gender, and romance. Trinh T. Minh-ha takes documentary film in another direction that interrogates its claims to transparent presentation of Truth, focusing especially on the ways that all filmmakers frame their subject matter and questioning the (filmmaker’s) use of voice to empower or silence its subjects. Trinh’s documentaries are at once critical explorations and theoretical constructions of documentary filmmaking practices. Chick Strand also challenges documentary practices, especially those of early ethnographic films, through assemblage techniques that link original footage with found footage. Blending highly personal subject matter and abstract imagery, Strand’s films simultaneously explore and transform the world.
If feminist films, and film theory, have seemed at times to overemphasize the haunting presence of Oedipus, the range of films presented here reveal that Oedipus has also been erased, forgotten. In their search for language, a distinctly feminine voice, or alternative stories, these films disrupt easy connections between sound and image, subject and object, representation and reality. Reviewing feminist films from the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s recalls the struggles of second wave feminism. They also provide a view into the future: taking the world apart and putting it together in different ways, they imagine ways of being that have yet to be seen.