Laura Mulvey’s Riddles of the Sphinx
How do you talk about a film that is strictly grounded in theory, psychoanalysis, and a critique of both of these? Perhaps you don’t—perhaps you make a film about it instead. We can sit and talk, and endlessly discuss Laura Mulvey’s feminist film theory, but that is much less interesting and perhaps even less helpful than making a film that attempts to deploy the new language and new structures that Mulvey points to in her foundational essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975).
What is the meaning or purpose of part three “Stones” in Riddles of the Sphinx? This section is a montage sequence of found footage of the Egyptian Sphinx, which is rather unclear, due to the use of zooming in and out, and the extreme distortion of images due to the movement of the camera, the extreme close-ups, and the graininess of the film. In this section there is also a focus on the mouth of the Sphinx. What is the purpose of this section? Is it to call attention to the voice of the Sphinx, who narrates the rest of the film? What does this voice stand for—what does it represent, or what is it pointing to? The Sphinx (according to the Greek mythologies) speaks in riddles, and these riddles become the source of the listener’s demise (when they are unable to figure out or answer the riddles correctly). Mulvey also speaks to the importance of the positioning of the Sphinx—outside of the city, apart from it, “confirming women’s sense of exclusion and suppression (Mulvey in section two of Riddles of the Sphinx).”
What do we make of Mulvey’s final statement in section two?
To the patriarchy, the Sphinx as woman is a threat and a riddle, but women within patriarchy are faced with a never-ending series of threats and riddles—dilemmas which are hard for women to solve, because the culture within which they must think is not theirs. We live in a society ruled by the father, in which the place of the mother is suppressed. Motherhood and how to live it, or not to live it, lies at the roots of the dilemma. And meanwhile the Sphinx can only speak with a voice apart, a voice off.
What is the relationship of this statement to the montage sequence that follows this statement? Is she bringing us back in time, back to the roots of the symbolic order of the contradictions or dilemmas facing women in a patriarchal society? Does this montage sequence successfully do that—or more importantly, does this montage sequence do anything at all? Perhaps the montage sequence is open to interpretation and exists as a section in which the viewer is forced to make their own assumptions based on their own psychological state of mind, which seems to be aided or suggested by the distorted images which appear on the screen, reminiscent or Rorschach ink blots, and thus ultimately pointing back to the seizure of psychoanalysis for new purposes.
Visual Pleasure? I found the film to be the opposite of what can typically construed as pleasurable even though visually it was interesting. Personally I found interpretations in various scenes within the movie that I can see relate back to Mulveys psychoanalysis of cinema, feminism and attempting to move the viewer to think about the issues. The woman’s discontent with all that womanhood is supposed to be is apparent in the poetic lyrical ramblings that continue throughout the film. Images that accompany seem to shout questioning of woman’s place in the world. Within the scene in the child’s bedroom, we see the tools of a sort of social/cultural/political propaganda: dollhouses showing doll children and homes, kitchen toys and bedtime stories that will indoctrinate the daughter into her proper place in the world. Can the child be viewed as controlled or imprinted into perpetuating woman’s discontent with her place under patriarchy rules? And then could the child be considered the possible one to break these rules and change the future of social roles? This film definitely invokes a series of questions.
I heard some say that they had no idea what the movie was about or did not find any meaning in the bizarre images. Does that mean that everyone who sees the movie has to have some psychoanalytic skills to understand the messages of this film? I don’t believe so but one does need to be attuned to what Mulvey is trying to get across. So if the background is not read and understood, then yes, I can see how it could be not understood. If one short sentence could summarize the underlying meaning of the film to make someone understand it, then perhaps “Analyzing woman’s place under patriarchy” or “The myths of motherhood” would work. Reading between the lines throughout the film, reading more into the images shown you see a struggle of how women have to juggle motherhood, marriage (or lack thereof) all while trying to fit into the predetermined mold that has been made for them. We contort, bend and ply ourselves to others idea of what we should be all the while giving ‘visual pleasure’ to the viewer. The puzzle in the film seemed to say that woman is always trying to fit into a premade set of parameters that belong to someone else.
The background music for this film was somewhat surreal and at times, jolting to the senses. The music makes the monologue and the imagery seem stranger and yet frantically important at the same time. Professor Mowitt proclaimed “The rhythmic patterning draws attention to eh image” and this could not be truer for this film. Where it may have put an unknowing audience to sleep, the score holds your eyes captive to what is unfolding on the screen. When the music is silent between texts, the lack also holds your attention. I cannot imagine any other sounds that would compliment this movie any better.
After reading another review, I am in total agreement with the comment, “Laura Mulvey is an acquired taste that we grow accustomed to.”Written by U of M student Youa Vang
I didn’t quite understand the meaning of the Sphinx at the beginning when it was zooming in and out of the lip of the Sphinx. Was it trying to tell the viewers something? Why did it focus on the lip for at least 5-7 minutes, and nothing else? I find myself feeling a little disturbed and agitated because it focused on this old grainy photo of the Sphinx and nothing else.
After this long scene, it switched to a kitchen where the camera made a 360 degree panning shot, recording a day with the character Louise and her daughter. Louise cooked, cleaned, and fed her daughter. When the camera rolled around again, she cooked breakfast for her husband, where you can see him standing there eating his food. All the shots in this part of the film are recorded in a 360 panning shot.
In this film, you can hear the voice of the Sphinx almost narrating the scenes. Then you see Laura Mulvey appear on screen reading from her notes. You also hear voices of the characters. Beware because this film can create motion sickness. I had a horrible migraine after watching the film.Written by U of M Student Heidi Zimmerman
I very much appreciate the way in which the above posts explore the thematic material in Mulvey’s film. Yet, in viewing the film (finally, after having read Mulvey’s essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” many times), the thematic material that the film takes up—single motherhood, women’s desire for women, childcare, housework, waged work, unions, and of course the relationship between mother and daughter—was less interesting to me than the formal ways in which the film interrupts the spectator’s expectations and frustrates the spectator’s desires vis-à-vis narrative cinema and visual pleasure. Although the political and social issues the film lays out have ongoing salience in the context of present-day heteropatriarchy and economic inequality and, of course, demand analytical and political attention, I did not feel that the treatment of these issues in the film inspired me toward action or revolutionary thinking. The didacticism had a distancing effect. The narrative, for me, almost functioned as a backdrop for the formal experiments of the film. The dialog was often difficult to make out, the action was “passed over” by the ostensibly unmotivated gaze of a steadily panning camera, the screens of narrative text were seemingly snipped out of longer pieces of prose, with no regard for the beginnings and ends of sentences or meanings. If something “arrested” my gaze (or my ear or my interest otherwise), the film was utterly unsympathetic. Yet as the film went on, I was able to settle into the aesthetics of the film. It became almost funny. This was especially so when the narrative part of the movie ended. The film concludes with what seemed to me like an experiment in visual pleasure that gestured away from narrative and women’s lack, away form the purposive desires of the oedipal narrative, toward imagining a kind of utopian economy of looking. While in traditional Hollywood film, for Mulvey, the image of woman coded as to-be-looked-at breaks the flow of the narrative. But here no attempt is made to maintain narrative flow or coherence. For example, in a static shot, a blue labyrinth game fills the screen. The shot itself is beautiful. But what was most interesting to me was that the audience got swept up in the drama of the quivering bead of mercury struggling through the maze, placing our own desires on this animated inanimate object—for example, the desire to have it reach the center of the labyrinth, to be reunited with the other beads of mercury into a single, larger bead—desires which couldn’t be but projections. The mercury has no desires of its own. Yet the audience was more amused during this part of the film than any other. I also have thought about the role of the static shots of women juggling and doing acrobatics in the final scenes. I wondered whether these aimed to imagine, also, a form of pleasure in looking that ceased to be about woman’s lack or about secret looking (the voyeurism of the oedipal narrative that Mulvey argues is central to heteropatriarchy in her essay). How might the presentation of compositionally beautiful shots of skillful performers, which appear to have little relationship to narrative, speak to Mulvey’s arguments about visual pleasure?