I really feel that the message was effectively translated by having the director, Bette Gordon, talk about it before and after. It seems to be a feminist film to display the internal power women have if they want to utilize it rather than a politically feminist film. The fact that this is film is not politically motivating makes for a more inspiring narrative.
In two separate sessions of listening to her she stated that the movie was reflective of the feelings she felt of living without a “place.” The woman in the film was torn between living in the Midwest or New York but seemed to never be satisfied wherever she was. Gordon imagined that all women feel that way at some point in their career and life. In reality though, the feeling of being lost is felt by both sexes but men rarely display a sense of not belonging. But at the same time, the fact that the woman in the film had the ability to move to any place she felt the desire to shows freedom of women, which is what Bette Gordon had aimed to do throughout the film. With the sense of freedom the women of the film were displaying came the baggage of their individual pasts. Of course all women, and men for that matter, have baggage. The “empty” suitcases can be inferred as letting go of all the unnecessary thoughts and feelings of a person’s past.
After the film was over Bette Gordon talked about her desire to work with the empty spaces of the frame and put in items outside of the frame of view. The scenes of the two women taking the pictures of each other are the most apparent use of this technique. While watching that part of the film I could not help but remember the Chick Strand film of the woman in her kitchen. While watching both parts I found myself imaging what was going on past my frame of view and wishing I could see what else was happening. During Bette Gordon’s talk, she continuously stated that she aimed for viewers to be active participants. Those scenes definitely made me active in the movie “making,” or more accurately movie “imaging” process. The fact that Gordon can identify what she aims for in her movies and then achieve that ideal so seamlessly is very inspiring to all professionals.
The last topic I felt was intriguing was her use of color. I guess that hearing her talk about why/how she used color throughout her films was more inspiring than actually seeing the color in the film. She talked about the well-known “emotional colors” (i.e., red being danger or passion and blue being serene or calming) and how she used them in opposition to each other to balance out emotions. Also, in addition to balancing out emotions, she used the colors to control the emotions of the audience. I felt my emotions changed by the colors when viewing the landscapes. Landscapes give all people a very specific feeling that Bette Gordon aimed to change. She highlighted specific aspects of the frame with various colors to change the emotion of the viewer to match what she intended for development of the film.
It is interesting to think about what I would have thought about the film had I not heard everything directly from the director. Unfortunately I think I would have been much more confused by the point she was trying to make about women because the women in this film seemed to have a hard time following through with their radical thoughts. The lack of follow-through does not help the case for powerful women. I do appreciate that she shows women taking initiative towards acting on something they want, which in this movie is moving cities to find a “place.”
Last Saturday the Walker Art Center screened Empty Suitcases (1980), Bette Gordon’s richly textured meditation on viewership and the representation of women. On Friday night the Walker screened Gordon’s better known film, Variety, her 1984 debut feature about a woman who works at a pornographic theater. After talking about Variety’s release in response to debates about pornography in feminist communities in the 80s, it was interesting to see how Empty Suitcases seemed to be working on a much broader subject of attempting to make spectators question his or her relationship to a woman on film. In Variety, the main character is a woman named Christine and the film follows her through her own epistemological development as she slowly embraces the voyeuristic gaze available to her through pornography and the theater. In contrast, Empty Suitcases structurally composes a kind of ‘everywoman’ though couched in a narrative about an individual.
Empty Suitcases, as Gordon explained in her question-and-answer session after the screening, has Midwest roots. The film was partially funded by a Jerome Foundation grant and filmed in Madison, where she had recently finished her MFA. The film is about a woman trying to decide whether to live in the Midwest or New York, a premise loosely based on Gordon’s own experience moving between her first teaching job in Milwaukee and New York. In the film, the main character travels from Chicago to New York which we hear about from an off-screen voice narrating the main character’s progress and emotional state. In an early scene, we see a woman packing and unpacking her suitcase in her bedroom, a process that Gordon said she went through as she was trying to find her place and make a decision.
Gordon explained that the film was made over a long period of time as she went though this process. In the film, different women play the main character. Gordon’s choice to use multiple women to play the main character, which she explained, was meant to enact a Brechtian disruption of the viewer’s identification with the main character. Gordon also referenced both Luis Buñuel and Yvonne Rainer as progenitors of this use of multiple actors to play one character as a kind of tactic to reorient the spectator to a new experience of viewing film.
Empty Suitcases seems like a series of experiments that are constantly challenging the notion of passive spectatorship. Structurally, the film seems to be a series of vignettes for the viewer to explore visually while a narrative voice often slowly advances the narrative of the main character moving back and forth between Chicago and New York, through the frustration of losing a teaching job, breaking up with a boyfriend, and contemplating bombing a building owned by the university. The possibility of violent destruction of space seems to consistently undermine the sense that the story is moving toward a kind of resolution or stability. In one section, the narrator describes how to make a bomb. The off-screen voice delivers these instructions in the same even tone as when the narrator describes riding the Amtrak through New Jersey, or when narrating a series of banal tourist postcards from New York. This steady narrative is interspersed with sections of the film with sound excerpted from television programs, the energetic music of X-Ray Spex, the Talking Heads, and Billie Holiday. These are sounds that seem to make up a textured description of this psychological moment. This collage of sounds seems to act as counterpoint to the long (in duration) shots and steady camera.
As evidenced by the question-and-answer session after the screening, many viewers are fascinated by the way that Empty Suitcases seems like a kind of time capsule showing a lost New York of the 1970s. Gordon’s still photographs of the landscape of New York seem alien in comparison to the city today. One photograph showed an open lot across the street from her loft. This quasi-documentary quality allows us to read Empty Suitcases as itself a historical object open to investigation. Additionally, the film contains cameo appearances by the artists Nan Goldin and Vivian Dick, and Wooster Group member Ron Vawter. Even the brash punk music by X-Ray Spex sounded melancholy to me as I recalled the recent death of Poly Styrene, the group’s front woman. There is something nostalgic about these images, these depictions of empty lots. The film shows us a feminism that could be constructed out of the raw materials available to a young filmmaker in a city full of possibility.