Friday, 20 July 2012

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker: "Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich" Performed in The Tanks at Tate Modern

I imagined that the newly-opened Tate Tanks would be further underground: the sloping of the Turbine hall fools you into not realising that you've already gone far below street level. The entrance to the Tanks is just off on the right at the bottom of the slope. As you enter through the glass doors, you find yourself in a concrete cave-like corridor of concrete columns; deeper in are sealed doorways coming off the main chamber, and projections showing the titles of other performances, exhibitions, screenings and happenings with visiting artists who will be residing in The Tanks for some of the next 15 weeks of its Art in Action program. At the very back at the lowest point is a closed door with a header written in capitals above the entrance: ANNA TERESA DE KEERSMAEKER - so, we've come to the right place...

As we enter the dark tank, we are instructed to "move all the way around the space" and to sit somewhere around the white outline of a square painted onto to the concrete floor. The floor is smooth as if it has been polished; some people have been sensible enough to bring their own cushion as it's also incredibly hard and cold. There is a sense of excitement and play - no one knows quite what's about to happen, and the threat of sudden darkness and claustrophobia prompt uneasy giggles. The lights do dim then, and a small dark haired woman (De Keersmaeker) and a taller reddish-blonde woman (Tale Dolven) nip round one of the columns and enter the square, wearing knee length dresses that fan out like spinning tops, and what look like silver spraypainted Reebok Classics with rolled-down ankle socks. The performance is divided into four parts, as the title: Four Movements to the music of Steve Reich suggests. The first part is Piano Phase (1967). De Keersmaeker and her partner start to move in time with a simple piece of music played by a piano; the women spin and twist together sharply in synch. As another piano joins in, at first playing in time with the first piano then slowly starting to lose pace, the dancers' movements mimic this action: at first their gestures are in time with one another like mirror images, but then as the music becomes slightly discordant and out of pace they too miss each other on the turns, losing their synchronicity.

The series of movements here is minimal, yet as they are repeated something changes in the repetition. After seemingly falling out of time with each other the dancers somehow fall back in pace again. More pianos join the music and the layers of the same tune become a second rhythm to the piece. The dance behaves in the same way - we become accustomed the movements of the dancers, their shifts, turns and spins, but never quite know what the new variation is going to be; this is what keeps this piece so captivating. The minimal movements and music becomes not individual tunes, or stand-out gestures, but instead a mass of repetition and rhythm that pulses as a great hypnotising wave.

The second Movement is called Come out (1967); after a 5 minute break, De Keersmaeker and Dolven re-enter the square, dressed in plain button-down work shirts, grey slacks and shiny leather heeled ankle boots, and carrying two stools. They sit down on the stools, facing away from where I am sitting. A recording starts up, crackling and fuzzy, and a voice starts speaking, "I had to, like, open the bruise up, and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them"; this is repeated, looped while the dancers sit and move. From behind, their gestures resemble something like Janet Jackson circa 1989 in Rhythm Nation, driving a car and doing sign language at the same time - fast, strong, angular arm movements. The work-wear costumes and the repetitious actions speak of the daily monotony of the factory worker - the same movements over and over. The recording continues to loop, becoming distorted and bassy, until all that can be made out is "let some of the bruise blood come out to show them", and then "...blood come out to show them", and then "...come out to show them...come out to show them...come out to show them", over and over, becoming a warm blanket of fuzzy human tones. (After this performance I found out that this recording came from the trial of six black teenagers, termed the "Harlem Six", who after the Harlem riots in 1964 were tried for a murder that happened during the rioting. The recording is of Daniel Hamm, who is explaining his injuries from being beaten to the disinterested police). This combination of recorded accounts of police violence done to the body, along with the enactment of bodies put under the stresses and strains of manual labour performed to the dense noises of the sound-art-track, feels so contemporary - these tropes and themes are very close to the surface today.

Before the start of the third movement, Violin Phase (1967), two gallery staff come into the square with a huge bit of string and some chalk, and compass-style draw a large circle onto the concrete floor - curiosity is sparked! De Keersmaeker walks back into the square; the work clothes are gone and she is back in the floaty dress, only instead of the silver trainers she's now got on some dinner-lady-style clogs. One of the most pleasing things De Keersmaeker does when dancing is make sounds - she hisses, grunts, shushes, "pow!"s - and when she is dancing with Dolven she leads the change of movement, direction and pace vocally. Its not always easy to hear what she says, but it's said with energy and force. During this piece she is alone, making her way with twists and turns, leaps and bends around the circle on the floor. The violin is multiplied, phased, treated in the same way as the piano in the first piece. As this is a violin however, the franticness feels more spontaneous and more like a jig; this is mirrored in De Keermaeker's movements with leaping legs and crossed ankles. As she moves around and around the circle, it is all rather dizzy-making. Following the tone of a jig, De Keersmaeker lifts her full skirt pulling it up and away from her body, deliberately flashing her mint green knickers. There are other amusing things in this dance: during a very difficult movement where one leg is lifted high while the other is bent and her hips are twisting side to side, she mimes smoking a cigarette, slowly and with evident pleasure; the fact this is being done while keeping her balance in this awkward movement is both amusing and impressive.

In the fourth and last part of the performance, De Keersmaeker is joined by Dolven and they have both changed back into their grey slacks and work shirts; I'm happy about this as somehow the dance is more impressive and unusual when the women are dressed in normal clothing as opposed to the standard dancing frocks. Women in trousers and silver trainers is much more fun. For this Clapping Movement (1972) the women dance in line, one in front of the other (see the above photograph). This is the most minimal of the dances so far, its movements comprising hopping, lifting feet, heel-toe, ankle-toe and going up onto the toes Michael Jackson-style; once again, it veers from perfect synchronisation to movements bleeding out of time with each other, then back once again to being in synch. The clapping does the same thing. The minimalism of sounds and movements here is neither cold and alienating, nor slow and tortuous, but dynamic, pulsing and very human. It is also very moving that De Keersmaeker is dancing her own choreography from the early 1980s. Both her and Dolven are different ages - De Keersmaeker is now in her fifties, while Dolven is in her thirties - and both women have very different body shapes and express movement and style differently, which is one of the things that makes this sparse performance so human. The differences between the dancers, the repetition of sound and movements that are somehow never the same twice, the variations and mistakes when gestures and noise are perpetually blurring and clarifying, amounts to a strange kind of harmony and unity.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

"Take Me Up to the Top of the City" Billy Liar's View From The Hill, 1963


A recurring motif in British new wave cinema is that of the scene with a "view from the hill". This motif is strikingly in evidence in the John Schlesinger film Billy Liar (1963). Like many other British new wave films of this period, Billy Liar is set in a northern industrial town - in this case, Bradford. Like other favoured cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Nottingham, Bradford is a large city surrounded by dramatic rural landscape. The contrast of visual landscapes is used to express the dichotomy between the town and the country, and between the past and modernity. These are issues at the heart of many of the British new wave films, whose young protagonists frequently stand at the cusp of a transition between two spheres: tied to the traditions of family and community that represent the past, but tugged at by desire for the city that stands for modern living and independence. 

Most of the action in Billy Liar takes place among the building and roads of the city. Gliding along the streets, the camera and the film's characters wonder the city, showing off Bradford's personality of vibrancy and movement which typifies the romantic notion of the hustle and bustle of city life. The shots during the "view from the hill" sequence in Billy Liar are in high contrast to the imagery that comes before and after: shots of demolition and war damage, bulldozers colliding into the sides of buildings, with piles of rubble seen in the empty gaps where buildings once stood, accompanied by the sounds of drilling. This depiction of destruction is endowed with a certain amount of relish, as these scenes interrupt the smooth panning camera movement that records the historical monuments, town halls, pompous statues and inner-city terraced housing, along with the tweeness of the suburban semis that Billy lives in. It seems to be a destruction of one idea of the city in favour of another. The sweeping camera work focussing on the new (at the time) 60's tower blocks is backed by a soundtrack of upbeat modern jazz music; the order of these images makes it clear that this image of modernity is one Billy favours. During one of Billy's fantasy sequences as the ruler of Ambrosia, he addresses a large crowd: “we will rebuild the drab and the shabby...master craftsmen will change the face of our cities, we will build towers, towers!” as the crowd roars with applause.

It is interesting that the sequence of the "view from the hill" comes after one such fantasy episode: it is as, if coming out of his fantasy projection of Ambrosia (his ideal state), Billy is then forced to confront the dark side of the reality of his life in Bradford. The start of the sequence sees the back and shoulders of a stationary Counsellor Duxbury filling up half the right hand side of the frame. The camera then backs away, moving to the left, leaving him in the middle of the frame; on either side of him are the tall peaks of the moors' hills. His voice is heard - “now then lad” - as the camera continues its pan left. A steep valley is seen in the background as Billy enters the frame, approaching, climbing the steep path up towards the counsellor. The town below is barely visible in this view from the hill: the dip appears so low that all that can be seen is the framed outline of the triangles of terraced roofs. The surrounding moors are craggy, brutal looking rocks jutting out at sharp angles into the sky. Pieces of brick, burnt out frames of cars, scrap metal and junk litter the scene, like war-damage debris that no-one has remembered to clear away. This is a place the town below has seemingly forgotten about. 

Counsellor Duxbury represents patriarchal power and the traditions of the town, through both his official station as a council man and his colloquial, old-fashioned mode of speech. As Billy and Duxbury stand talking about the state of Bradford, Duxbury stands higher up the hill than Billy, making visually clear their social status and power difference: he is looking down as he speaks to Billy, who is positioned lower in the frame as if he were subservient to the older, more respected man. They talk of the older buildings that are being knocked down, and the things that are being made way for; Duxbury is clearly resistant and anxious about the change. Billy, who earlier made it clear he is all for "out with the old, in with the new", is excited about modernity invading his town. Slyly mimicking the colloquial speech and accent of the Counsellor, Billy impersonates Duxbury's attitude of nostalgia towards the town, making his views appear banal and small-minded. As Duxbury ponders: “Ah they're all coming down, all the old buildings...The city centre, that's all new...”, Billy joins in, mocking him: “ah, you could get a glass of beer, a meat pie, cigarettes, matches and change, all out of a four pence”. Up on the hill the two men stand alone together, each representing a different generation and time. A giant telegraph pole looms behind Duxbury's head, visually emphasising his anachronism - change has already happened, yet through his denial of it he is in some ways still in the past.  

During a close up of Duxbury's face he offers some advice to the wayward fantasist Billy, telling him to “think on”. Billy's mockery thinly disguises his feelings of superiority towards the uneducated Duxbury, yet Duxbury is well aware of Billy's misdemeanours, knowing all about the unsent calendars Billy pocketed the postage for from work. A shadow seems to have hung over the scene as the men change position, with Billy high on the hill and Duxbury lower. Duxbury tells him again to “think on!". This can be seen as a role reversal: Billy is now in the position of the adult and therefore will be forced to make amends for his behaviour. As he is  repeatedly told throughout the film, he must learn to "grow up".  

Billy is now alone after Duxbury has mirrored his path up by his exit down the hill - again, a symmetry that reflects the changing of roles. Perhaps in defiance of Duxbury's advice, Billy rushes up the hill with the stolen calendars under his arm with childlike glee. Once at the top of the hill the camera is tilted down at Billy, from the point of view of looking down at someone smaller or younger, reinforcing the childlike quality of Billy's character. As the calendars float dreamily down the sharp hill face, we are shown Billy's face full of pleasure as he gives into his desire to escape responsibility and the pull of reality. The scene from the hill behaves like a liminal space that is disconnected from the world below it. It  is a place in between, for Billy a place that allows him to remain somewhere between being a teenager and becoming an adult. After he has disposed of the calenders, the hills and Billy's figure are seen in silhouette as he runs up one hill and down the other, making the scene become fantastical. Here, the "view from the hill" acts as a significant motif, which allows for contemplation and space in a place that is familiar yet separate from the world and city below.


A recurring motif in British new wave cinema is that of the scene with a "view from the hill". This motif is strikingly in evidence in the John Schlesinger film Billy Liar (1963). Like many other British new wave films of this period, Billy Liar is set in a northern industrial town - in this case, Bradford. Like other favoured cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Nottingham, Bradford is a large city surrounded by dramatic rural landscape. The contrast of visual landscapes is used to express the dichotomy between the town and the country, and between the past and modernity. These are issues at the heart of many of the British new wave films, whose young protagonists frequently stand at the cusp of a transition between two spheres: tied to the traditions of family and community that represent the past, but tugged at by desire for the city that stands for modern living and independence. 

Most of the action in Billy Liar takes place among the building and roads of the city. Gliding along the streets, the camera and the film's characters wonder the city, showing off Bradford's personality of vibrancy and movement which typifies the romantic notion of the hustle and bustle of city life. The shots during the "view from the hill" sequence in Billy Liar are in high contrast to the imagery that comes before and after: shots of demolition and war damage, bulldozers colliding into the sides of buildings, with piles of rubble seen in the empty gaps where buildings once stood, accompanied by the sounds of drilling. This depiction of destruction is endowed with a certain amount of relish, as these scenes interrupt the smooth panning camera movement that records the historical monuments, town halls, pompous statues and inner-city terraced housing, along with the tweeness of the suburban semis that Billy lives in. It seems to be a destruction of one idea of the city in favour of another. The sweeping camera work focussing on the new (at the time) 60's tower blocks is backed by a soundtrack of upbeat modern jazz music; the order of these images makes it clear that this image of modernity is one Billy favours. During one of Billy's fantasy sequences as the ruler of Ambrosia, he addresses a large crowd: “we will rebuild the drab and the shabby...master craftsmen will change the face of our cities, we will build towers, towers!” as the crowd roars with applause.

It is interesting that the sequence of the "view from the hill" comes after one such fantasy episode: it is as, if coming out of his fantasy projection of Ambrosia (his ideal state), Billy is then forced to confront the dark side of the reality of his life in Bradford. The start of the sequence sees the back and shoulders of a stationary Counsellor Duxbury filling up half the right hand side of the frame. The camera then backs away, moving to the left, leaving him in the middle of the frame; on either side of him are the tall peaks of the moors' hills. His voice is heard - “now then lad” - as the camera continues its pan left. A steep valley is seen in the background as Billy enters the frame, approaching, climbing the steep path up towards the counsellor. The town below is barely visible in this view from the hill: the dip appears so low that all that can be seen is the framed outline of the triangles of terraced roofs. The surrounding moors are craggy, brutal looking rocks jutting out at sharp angles into the sky. Pieces of brick, burnt out frames of cars, scrap metal and junk litter the scene, like war-damage debris that no-one has remembered to clear away. This is a place the town below has seemingly forgotten about. 

Counsellor Duxbury represents patriarchal power and the traditions of the town, through both his official station as a council man and his colloquial, old-fashioned mode of speech. As Billy and Duxbury stand talking about the state of Bradford, Duxbury stands higher up the hill than Billy, making visually clear their social status and power difference: he is looking down as he speaks to Billy, who is positioned lower in the frame as if he were subservient to the older, more respected man. They talk of the older buildings that are being knocked down, and the things that are being made way for; Duxbury is clearly resistant and anxious about the change. Billy, who earlier made it clear he is all for "out with the old, in with the new", is excited about modernity invading his town. Slyly mimicking the colloquial speech and accent of the Counsellor, Billy impersonates Duxbury's attitude of nostalgia towards the town, making his views appear banal and small-minded. As Duxbury ponders: “Ah they're all coming down, all the old buildings...The city centre, that's all new...”, Billy joins in, mocking him: “ah, you could get a glass of beer, a meat pie, cigarettes, matches and change, all out of a four pence”. Up on the hill the two men stand alone together, each representing a different generation and time. A giant telegraph pole looms behind Duxbury's head, visually emphasising his anachronism - change has already happened, yet through his denial of it he is in some ways still in the past.  

During a close up of Duxbury's face he offers some advice to the wayward fantasist Billy, telling him to “think on”. Billy's mockery thinly disguises his feelings of superiority towards the uneducated Duxbury, yet Duxbury is well aware of Billy's misdemeanours, knowing all about the unsent calendars Billy pocketed the postage for from work. A shadow seems to have hung over the scene as the men change position, with Billy high on the hill and Duxbury lower. Duxbury tells him again to “think on!". This can be seen as a role reversal: Billy is now in the position of the adult and therefore will be forced to make amends for his behaviour. As he is  repeatedly told throughout the film, he must learn to "grow up".  

Billy is now alone after Duxbury has mirrored his path up by his exit down the hill - again, a symmetry that reflects the changing of roles. Perhaps in defiance of Duxbury's advice, Billy rushes up the hill with the stolen calendars under his arm with childlike glee. Once at the top of the hill the camera is tilted down at Billy, from the point of view of looking down at someone smaller or younger, reinforcing the childlike quality of Billy's character. As the calendars float dreamily down the sharp hill face, we are shown Billy's face full of pleasure as he gives into his desire to escape responsibility and the pull of reality. The scene from the hill behaves like a liminal space that is disconnected from the world below it. It  is a place in between, for Billy a place that allows him to remain somewhere between being a teenager and becoming an adult. After he has disposed of the calenders, the hills and Billy's figure are seen in silhouette as he runs up one hill and down the other, making the scene become fantastical. Here, the "view from the hill" acts as a significant motif, which allows for contemplation and space in a place that is familiar yet separate from the world and city below.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Marina Abramović : The Artist is Present, Documentary at the ICA, London


The artist Marina Abramović has been working  since the early 1970s. Her work has been described as "body art", "sound art" and "conceptual art", producing installations and happenings, and she has lately been referring to herself as the "Grandmother of Performance Art". Her most famous work perhaps was with her partner, collaborator and fellow performance artist Ulay, with whom she worked and lived for over a decade. Much of their work together (see below pictures) was concerned with the problematic relationship of genders existing together, and the clashing of two artists' egos. This antagonism was acted out in space as physical friction: female and male bodies colliding, bumping and bashing, bodies that can't quite seem to coalesce and find sympathy or harmony. What typifies much of Abramović's work, both with Ulay and as a solo artist, is a testing out of bodily and mental limits and boundaries, using repetition, duration and endurance. These performances would often take place while fasting, allowing the mind to slow and produce trance like-states, reflecting the interest in Eastern mysticism of Abramović and other artists during the 70s.

So it had been a long time in coming, her first major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which took place on 14th March 2010 for three months ending on 31st May. Named after the exhibition, this documentary film, "Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present", details the run up to the performance and charts its duration. It starts with the usual talking heads, providing insights and opinions on the film's as yet unseen subject; these are then dispersed with quick flashing shots of press photographs of Abramović, and then of Abramović herself posing for various photoshoots, tossing her long glossy hair, pouting and fiercely staring into the camera's eye. For a moment I wondered what Monica Bellucci was doing in this documentary. It seems odd that in conveying Abramović at the ultimate peak of her career success, the film chooses to show us just how hot the artist still is. She is indeed a fiercely attractive woman, tall and muscular with her long prominent nose and strong face; yet we all know this. To foreground her image - particularly an image produced for a fashion/beauty shoot, which has more in common with the treatment of a model or actress rather than one of the most hardcore, staunch and tough performance artists perhaps of all time - seems hugely belittling.

The film follows Abramović finding young performance artists to take on and perform a piece from her archive for the MoMa exhibition. We see her telling them that they will be fasting, naked, and will do what she tells them for a period of a few days so that even if at first they hate her for it, "afterwards they will love me for it". She doesn't want to break them - well, not as such - but to prepare them for the physical and mental ordeal of performing her pieces to the public. During these sequences she unconsciously channels her mother, Danica, who during the course of the film Abramović explains was a strict disciplinarian, an army major in the former Yugoslavia. During her "artist boot camp", she collected up the young artists' confiscated mobile phones in a wicker basket: Abramović is both dictator and mother here. She says later that her mother drilled her to make sure her bedroom was army regulation tidy, even apparently waking her up in the middle of the night to check. During her performance art of the early 1970s, when Abramović was in her late twenties, she was still living at home under a curfew; which meant that during the day she was burning herself, driving a van in a circle for 16 hours, cutting a three point star with a razor blade onto her stomach in art galleries, but safely home before 10pm. The high level of discipline she experienced growing up and as a young women re-emerges as an influence in her art practice, provoking her treatment of her own body and  her strong will to transgress her own limits.

The most interesting parts of the film are the moments when Abramović is talking: her forceful personality, that at times seems aggressive then  turns to seriousness, shows that she is still extremely committed to her work. She is also very funny: at times her bullishness and dry sense of humour make her very captivating. The film is full of people commenting on the way she makes people fall in love with her - at one point Klaus Biesenbach, the chief curator at MoMa, says (perhaps revealing his anxieties about working with Abramović again) that she "seduces everybody, every one is seduced by Marina, she is in love with the world, it's nothing personal. But she cannot seduce me. We are divorced, so she cannot seduce me, that will not happen, because we are divorced". Methinks the lady doth protest too much. Nevertheless, her body of work, which is in a sense actually her real body, causes a confusion, mixing her persona as artist with a fantasy idea of Marina the person. The title of the show, "The Artist is Present" is a clue here: it is not really Marina that the public are sitting opposite a table from, but The Artist.

Forgive the sentimentality here, but one of the most moving aspects of the film for me was the account of the relationship between Abramović and Ulay. As part of the MoMa exhibition, some of the work they did together was to be re-staged, so the two ex-lovers/ex-colleagues met up for the first time in over a decade to talk about the show. As they both commented, the better their work got, the more of a toll it took on their relationship. During the 1980's piece from which The Artist is Present derives, Abramović and Ulay sat at opposite ends of a table from one another, for days and without food. As this went on for some time, Ulay began to lose weight and found it very difficult to continue with the piece. In the end Ulay quit the performance, but Abramović (thanks to her mother's training) did not quit: for her, giving in was totally out of the question. She carried on with the performance, sat alone at the table in front of an empty chair.

In 1988 they travelled to China for a piece called The Lovers, in which Ulay and Abramović each walked towards each other from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, ending together in the middle. This coming-together marked the end of the relationship - Abramović: “we needed a certain form of ending, after this huge distance walking towards each other. It is very human…Because in the end you are really alone, whatever you do". Ulay had been having an affair with their Chinese translator, who had fallen pregnant; Abramović left and continued to work alone. After their romantic relationship ended, the two seem to have been unable to have any contact with one another. So when, in the film, Ulay comes to Abramović's apartment in New York, it is after years of bad feeling; yet they are pleased and even excited to see each other. Ulay is grey-haired and scruffy, albeit handsomely so, while Abramović is in full-on glam mode; he jokes that she looks so sophisticated and he looks like "a worker", when in fact (he says) the opposite is true: she has continued to work furiously after the separation, while he in fact, as he confesses, is "just lazy".

Anyway, the moving moment of the film comes during the performance at MoMA, when Ulay takes the seat opposite her in the gallery space and she opens her eyes and sees him. There is no speaking allowed during the performance, so they sit just facing each-other. Both Ulay's and Abramović's eyes start watering: it has been nearly thirty years since they last performed this piece together, over thirty years since he got up out of his seat and left Abramović to continue without him. Now they sit together for a performance that is celebrating her career, a retrospective of how far she has come on her own. They sit looking at each other in tears for a long time, until Abramović slides her arms across the table towards him, Ulay then does the same and takes her hand - extending and receiving a branch of friendship, a gesture which speaks of old love and forgiveness.

I do however, have misgivings about the film and with the way the piece was performed in the gallery environment, due to the fact that no one pointed out the problematic meanings of the piece itself. For The Artist is Present, Abramović sits at a table in front of an empty chair that the public are invited to take and sit opposite her for a period of time. This goes on for 7 hours a day, 6 days a week. On the part of Abramović this takes tremendous endurance, mental as well as physical strength to sit and not talk or move but to be open and vulnerable to the eyes and bodies of thousands of strangers. But, the uncomfortable issue here, was that no one mentioned the fact that many people today (and many of whom also queued for hours, even days to see Abramović's performance) also, in their day to day lives have to sit at a table for 7 hours a day, every day, with few toilet breaks thus having restricted mobility, whilst performing emotional labour, also requiring a high level of strength, tolerance, endurance and boredom: it is called minimum wage call centre/office work. The fact that Abramović was being paid $100,000 dollars to do it at MoMa, with no mention or apparent awareness of other peoples realities of  very similar work-related performances, does seem cruelly ironic.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Women Writers on Film: "An Angel At My Table" 1990, Jane Campion


The 1990's film An Angel at my Table depicts the experience of a woman writer in a rather different manner to Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle discussed in the previous post. Directed by Jane Campion, this film has a slower tone, dealing contemplatively and sensitively with the New Zeeland poet Janet Frame, starting with her procession from a childhood interest in literature to becoming an adult woman and a full-time writer. The film is broken up into acts, very much like that of a play. Janet’s originality of thought is established from the start of the film. As a child writing poetry for school Janet is told by her older sister to change a line of her poem from “touch the sky” to “tint the sky”, the implication being that there is a predetermined "correct" language of poetry set by other poets that must be adhered to, the older sister continues “there are always words that go together in poetry…rub out touch and put in tint, it sounds more poetic”. In the following classroom scene we see Janet sat on the lap of the avuncular male teacher, reading out her poem. We hear she has not changed the line and that the poem is received joyously by her classmates - expressing the way that even as a child Janet reclaims language for herself and what sounds right for her. This quality of single-mindedness is rewarded seemingly when her father gives her a smart new notebook for her to write more poems in.

Contrasting highly with the previous film's self-conscious use of mirrors, the first time Janet is positioned in front of a mirror it is to mimic the rather fey schoolmate Shirley who has been told she possesses a “poetic world of imagination” by a dippy female school teacher seemingly for the sole reason that she is pretty and daydreams! Janet is present at a performance of this favoured pupil singing accompanied at the piano. She sings with rather laboured emotion, her face in mock pain as she sings glancing up at the heavens. Like the Dorothy Parker portrayal, to feel the words is to feel pain, which is presented as being rather romantic. After that scene, Janet is seen in the mirror trying to capture this look of romanised anguish, which comes off as sweet and amusing as she is represented as a grounded unaffected child, the antithesis of Shirley or Dorothy. There is no pretence in her evident love of literature and poetry; it is something engaged in naturally with her friend Poppy and among her sisters by reading Shakespeare and passages of the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales. Writing is done daily in lessons at school and then taken up out of pleasure at home. Her dedication to literature is foreshadowed as being a tragic choice, expressed in that it is in the act of writing she is engaged in, and not with her sisters who have gone to the Baths, when her older sister Mertell drowns.

The representation of Janet’s life is that of constant struggle, struggles to live and struggles to work. Janet’s life of poverty and mental illness is not portrayed as being sexy; she is not the tortured soul playing out her miseries in front of an audience of bourgeois intellectuals like in Mrs Parker and The Vicious Circle – but instead as a mind-numbingly dull rural poverty of hand-me-downs, four children to a bed, brown rotting teeth and filth. These things are dealt with matter-of-fact, they are not glamorised or laboured, they are just there, present. Janet’s tatty clothes and lack of concern over her appearances separate her visually from the other girls at college during the films adolescence section, but it is her shyness and self-imposed isolation that really divides her form her classmates. Literature is also, for Janet, a means to escape the tired tedium of provincial boredom. But really it is clear from the start of the film it is a passion to engage with rather than escape from.

Unfortunately as Janet grows up this interest is experienced less and less as a social, oral shared activity. She is separated from her kindred spirit in Poppy and her sisters become more interested in boys than in work, her sister Isabelle sidelines finishing an essay in favour of “nearly going on all the way” with her boyfriend. Literature therefore becomes a solitary pursuit for Janet, not something to study at school then abandon when you are old enough, to be replaced with interests in sex, socialising and finally marriage and family. To act against conventional behaviours by placing literature above the expectation of a woman’s domestic life is to become separate from society. Going against societies' constructed notions of acceptability is dangerous. To be a writer is almost always an activity that forces one to be outside of normal society, in hours and habits if nothing else. Dworkin states that writers “do something real and significant, not contemplative or dithering. Therefore writing is never peripheral or beside the point. It is serious and easily seditious”.

The madness or supposed madness that hangs ever-present over both films, Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle and An Angel At My Table is typical of the kind of labels women writers have always been given, the suggestion of mental infirmities is used against them in order to negate their talent and ability. Dorothy Parker's suicide attempts were put down (in the film and in real life) to a predilection for drink and masochistic relationships. Not that these did not factor, but more importantly, as a woman she had to work a lot harder than her male peers for recognition, respect, decent pay, for jobs and to survive the dangerous botched abortions without the back-up of the support of a stable domestic life. The path of writing was (and still is) more precarious for these women than it was for their male colleagues.

Unlike Dorothy Parker, for whom I feel Literature was a positive enabling force of catharsis, for Janet Frame, the isolation of the experience of working alone, becoming completely absorbed in literature led to her being somewhat underdeveloped in how to be what was expected of her in the world. Misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, she spent eight years in an asylum for women, when in fact she was just a shy, rather nervous woman. Instead of being treated with understanding and gentleness, her vaguely unusual behaviour and habits were simply not tolerated and she was incarcerated. It is telling that Janet is presented in the film as almost preferring to be considered mad, and thus be aloud to just be herself, than to be in a society that misunderstands her - she ironically calls the asylum “my private rest home”.

Despite being very different films, both portray the act of writing for these women to be considerably important, and that eventually, after massive amounts of struggling to be taken seriously, both women are eventually granted autonomy and given due credit. Still, I think as Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle unfortunately proves, that still today, a woman’s desirability is placed as more worthy of attention for an audience than the play of words and the world of literature she produced. Both films also show that the lives of Janet Frame and Dorothy Parker were denied the same experience of domestic life that their male peers could enjoy. Is it that in relationships between men and women, there can only be space for one gender to hold the pen or possess the “metaphorical penis” - a question that could be put to the director Alan Rudolph who, in depicting Dorothy Parker as a tragic femme-fatale, strips her of some humanity and, most of all, forgets who she was, which was a poet and writer.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Women Writers on Film: "Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle" 1994, Alan Rudolph


This post will be looking at the experience of writing, of being a writer and a woman and its depiction on screen. The two films that most illustrate the polarities of portrayals of women writers in film, for me are: An Angel at My Table and Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle. these two films are concerned with the lives of women writers of prose and poetry - Janet Frame and Dorothy Parker. The films chart the obstacles these women face by just being writers as well as the difficulties gaining any form of acceptance or success as writers. For the protagonists in these two films, the act of writing is also an act of defiance against an oppressive patriarchal cultures that disavows women’s right to live and work in the male-dominated field of literature. I will be discussing how we experience the possible pleasures gained by viewing these films, which often show the women to be performing a masochistic spectacle for the pleasures of the audience. Lastly Ill look at the detail of both films having directors of different sexes, and ask how each director represents the experience of the act of writing for these women, and how these differ, if at all.

The title Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle, has Dorothy Parker’s status of ‘married woman’ placed at the forefront. Perhaps this is meant to be ironic, as Parker was famed for her doomed love affairs? Either way, this inclusion of “Mrs” marks her out as being a wife first, and not a person in her own right. Do we call John Donne, Philip Larkin and Dylan Thomas, “Mr Donne”, “Mr Larkin” or “Mr Thomas”? No, because their marital status has no correlation with their identity as poets. The film starts with rather fetishised close-up shots of Dorothy’s (the fantastic Jennifer Jason Leigh) lips as she reads one of her poems, a (phallic) cigarette is then placed in her mouth and lit-up, becoming an erotic act; the pale smoke leaving her dark painted mouth is visually striking on the black and white film. The camera pans up her face to her eyes that languidly open as non-diegetic sensuous saxophones sounds strike up. This initial sequence posits the desirability of the film's female lead. Strangely as Parker is a writer, it is not writing we see her engaged in, in the establishing shots; it is her physiognomy that has been conceded as the first thing of importance. It also ties together uncomfortably the apparent sexiness of women’s experience of pain - the scene is erotically charged, she sensually drawls: “well and bitterly I know…could it be when I was young, someone dropped me on my head?”. These are the words of a bruised woman, yet the way it is shot, edited and musically accompanied is in such a way that reading the melancholic poem becomes a seduction. Her pain is therefore shown as alluring.

It is then right from the outset of Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle that we the audience watch a masochistic display of painful feminine struggle. The smoking, the dark lipstick and eye make-up adds to the performance of a masochistic masquerade that is played out in public, for most of Dorothy’s meltdowns occur in front of a crowd. Gaylyn Studlar in her book Beyond the Realm of Pleasure, in taking up the masochistic aesthetic of the Von Sternberg/Dietrich collaborations, states; “Performance also serves as the focal point for uniting the depictions of female sexuality in a patriarchal society with the formal and psychoanalytic requirements of masochistic desire”. It is in making her pain seen and known to the people around her that it becomes real for Dorothy. As Freud hypothesises, it is an absence (of penis), the “lack of qualities” that characterises women. It is in giving the viewer a sadistic pleasure in witnessing the spectacle of her masochistic display that fills this lack and makes Dorothy’s pain and struggle a reality. During a game of cards, Dorothy’s male friends discus her propensity for falling for men: “with claws flashing and tears falling”, one comments: “she really knows how to suffer, the greatest little runner downer there ever was” answered by another man with “Dotty can’t be suffering and still say all those funny things?” The players halt their game and stare in surprise at the speaker, suggesting they are aware her suffering and her wit are tied, that her black humour is a bitter display of her suffering.

The viewer is not always corroborating sexist sadistic visual enjoyment however; at times we are positioned in the masochist role. There is something defiant about Dorothy’s act of masochistic masquerade, in that it is unpleasant to watch; in identifying with her we confront and share her struggle - a masochistic pain which in itself is more subversive, as it runs against the trend of visual pleasure exclusively being sadistic. Kaja Silverman notes; “It is unfortunate but not surprising that the perversion which has commandeered most of the literary and theoretical attention – sadism - is also the one which is most compatible with conventional heterosexuality”.

The men in the newspaper office all wear cardboard signs around their necks saying variations of “don’t ask”, they have been banned form discussing their wages, and we see Dorothy’s sign states “twenty seven dollars a week”. The subordination of her colleagues is something Dorothy refuses to share. A woman in that (and this) world is not the equal of her male peers, so why share their silence when they do not share her discriminatory pay? Dorothy is shown as obstinate and aggressive - “mind, she bites the hand that feeds her”, is there anything as dangerous and frighting as an intelligent, witty and bolshy woman? Only after these first scenes, where she is presented as object of desire then one of fear, is that we actually see her sat down doing some writing! This writing spell is rather brief, interrupted by a bell ringing which causes Dorothy to get up and change, flashing her garter belt and stockings - back to the desired object role. The camera pans backwards as we see a white sheet of paper stuck in the typewriter, on it the single phase “dear god let me write like a man” suggesting her inability to write/work as she is still, despite her lacerating wit, still a woman. Her figure comes back into focus as she gazes at her refection in the mirror, correcting her hair, face and dress. Could a great poet’s attention really be more rapt over a frock than over a typewriter? It gives the impression that to Dorothy writing is trivial; a woman can only hope to succeed by writing like a man. It also rejects the idea that a woman may have anything unique to write. Virginia Woolf has remarked; “To say what one thought - that was my little problem - against the prodigious Current; to find a sentence that could hold its own against the male flood”.
In this male directed, produced and written film (an exception being one female co-writer), this shallow representation of a woman writer (not writing) has been filtered down from the sexist attitudes that suggest that the highest accolade a woman may have is to write like a man. Andrea Dworkin comments “in a patriarchy, possession of a phallus is the sole signet of worth, the touchstone of human identity…Intellect, moral discernment, creativity, imagination - are all male, or phallic, faculties. When any woman develops any one of these faculties, we are told either that she is striving to behave “like a man” or that she is 'masculine'". This is backed up by Dorothy getting out of her writing clothes and into a revealing frock, to prove that despite being a writer, she wants to be viewed as a woman first.

The next sequence explains the reason she has stopped working - her solider husband is coming to see her. This again implies that a woman writer must be wife first, writer second. What makes this particularly insulting is that said husband says to her “Ibsen, who's he?” Even as her intellectual inferior his time is valued higher than hers, and she must stop what she is writing (or not writing as the case may be) to make time for him. The next time we see Dorothy presented in the act of writing, it is in the new office shared with Mr Benchley, him sat down ready to begin work while she is again situated instead in front of a mirror, this time writing on it with lipstick! After this brief reinforcement of her role as "vain woman" opposed to "serious writer", the rest of the scene is that of symmetry and equality between Dorothy and Mr Benchley. Two typewriters, two chairs either side of two desks pressed together to form one, this visual harmony reflects the mutual affection and intellectual respect these two people feels for each other. There is a continued conflict in this film of how to present Dorothy Parker as a sharp tongued quick witted writer, and it is mostly gathered from dialogue said about her rather than by her. This is more common than the witty remarks she makes herself, so that it seems there is a discrepancy between wanting to express her intelligence and falling back on getting male characters to be the ones expressing it for her, as the rightful judges of such intelligence.

The film is inter-cut with extra-diegetic scenes in black and white in which Dorothy recites poems; these performances dotted among the action of the film, act out her feelings about her unrequited love or failed love affairs depending on the action seen before. These sequences yoke together Dorothy’s writing and her self as one identity, that she puts her life into her work. We see after Charles has cheated on her and she aborts the baby that she cannot write, and a towel has been placed over the typewriter. Her work is her life, when she is ill, when she is dead inside and emotionally bruised she cannot work. So it could be said her writing and her life are one; when she is alive she writes and when she writes she is alive. The personality of Dorothy Parker is presented at times as more important than her writing, the persona of writer takes over, the myth placed higher than the work itself, both becoming intertwined. This early exchange between Charles and Dorothy in which she comes to his apartment for the first time expresses this:

Charles: “Look, before you start analysing my books, there’s something I should clear up I lied when I told you, you were one of my favourite writers”

Dorothy: “and I lied when I smiled”

Charles: “its just that I’ve heard more about you, what Dorothy Parker thinks about this or that, than I have about your actual writing”

Despite the lack of emphasis on the physical act of writing, the film does express the join of the self with work. Perhaps instead of being sexist symbols, the inclusion of mirrors at key stages in the film (Dorothy is also gazing into one before her first suicide attempt) can be seen as her search for her own identity as a writer. Sandra Gilbert suggest, “Before the woman writer can journey through the looking glass towards literary autonomy, however, she must come to terms with the image on the surface of the glass, with, that is, those mythic masks male artists have fastened over her”. Perhaps then these mirror scenes punctuate Dorothy’s struggle against the restrictions placed on a woman writer. Or maybe this is an overly hopeful reading of the film that may use the mirrors to remind the audience of the actress’s desirability making her struggle seem more romantic as she herself is shown to be attractive.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Dangerous Women Under Analysis: Celluloid Sirens

This post carries on the theme of dangerous women in visual culture from the previous post on fin-de-siècle 19th century art, to the continuation of the character of the vamp and the femme-fatale in early silent cinema of the 20th century. Here the figure of the femme-fatale is understood and analysed by twentieth century writers under a framework of psychoanalysis not in existence during the periods the Pre-Raphaelites and Symbolists were working. In order to examine and understand these later interpretations of the figure of the dangerous women, I will examine the way she was theorised by the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.

Freud evokes the image of Medusa, the epitome of the dangerous woman, in order firstly to describe what about her deadly physiognomy it is that threatens and the ways in which that very aspect causes both delight and disgust that again links sex and death, and secondly the way visible female sexuality threatens the male ego; fearing a loss of self during intercourse, he is interpolated into the anxious “castration complex”, that literally robs him of the phallus – the symbol of his superior maleness. "The sight of Medusa's head makes the spectator stiff with terror, turns him to stone. Observe that we have once again the same origin from the castration complex and the same transformation of effect! For becoming stiff means an erection. Thus in the original situation it offers consolation to the spectator: he is still in possession of a penis, and the stiffening reassures him of the effect....[S]he displays the terrifying genitals of the Mother. Since the Greeks were in the main strongly homosexual, it was inevitable that we should find among them a representation of women as a being who frightens and repels because she is castrated"

Freud's complicit bolstering of Ancient Greece's misogynistic attitudes was later taken to task by the second wave of feminists in the 1970's. Written in 1975, Hélène Cixous's The Laugh of the Medusa attempts to transform the misogynistic presentation of the dangerous, ugly, fearful Medusa that lacks what the male possesses into something powerfully feminine and fecund. Cixous throws back Freud's hypothesis of women as the “dark continent” in order to encourage women to misbehave by resisting silent obedience; in short to become "dangerous women". To give a truer survey of the most poignant, popular and interesting images of dangerous women in the visual cultures of the 19th and 20th century I felt I could not overlook cinema as the advent of the moving image was one of the twentieth century's largest innovations and something that radically and irrevocably changed our ideas of art, spectatorship, entertainment and culture.

Reading about "dangerous women" in early cinema I came across Bram Dijkstra's second book Evil Sisters, The Threat of Female Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Culture as he discusses the perhaps first film incarnation of the vampire: devouring/desiring dangerous woman Theda Bara, who played the “vamp” from Frank Powell's 1915 film A Fool There Was. Talking in Evil Sisters about film and the pleasures of identification it can offer the viewer, Dijkstra readdresses the issue of a recognition of the dangerous women as possessing some positive qualities. He comments, "from the vantage point of many of today's twice-marginalised women, the sexual woman of the early years of this century becomes a particularly appealing figure, whose emotional independence from men, sexual confidence, pleasure in the seductive authority of her body, and “masculine” economic depredations gave her a centrality in that period's cultural imagination of which today's manufactured “sex symbols” can only dream...But in fact she was, even then, the negative, mirror images of the dreams and mastery of the imperialist male. She was the nightmare inversion of his social sense of self, and though she appeared other, she remained, and still remains, a construct of the male imagination"

Theda Bara's role in A Fool There Was was known only as the “Vamp” - a shortening of "vampire" which led to the term "vamp" (to vamp: to be sexually provocative, etc.) as we know it today. Bara's physical appearance is extremely reminiscent of the images of women in Symbolist and Pre-Raphaelite art, long flowing snake-like tendrils draped over herself and the man who has fallen victim to her seduction. Not much has changed therefore in the representation of the dangerous sexually active women from the fin-de-siècle to the early 1910's: both equate female sexuality with threatening deprivation.

Although Bara's Vamp is powerful and achieves her ends, it is at the cost of using her body as a commodity of exchange: she remain unequal to men, and cannot be read as a progressive positive example of the dangerous women. The pleasures of Bara's “vamp” work in much the same way as in paintings of Greek mythical femmes-fatales: the suspension of normal rules of society permit a guilt-free desire to look at and imagine the forbidden, while the seductive power of these female figures absolves men of responsibility: as helpless victims, they retain their superior moral status.

The silent films of the cinema's early period were heavily influenced by German Expressionism and the black and white film stock enhanced their atmospheric chiaroscuro landscapes of shadows. This is epitomised by Robert Wiene's 1920's film Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari. During this period the silent screens were full of horrifying vampish characters, I have come across endless black-eyed femmes-fatales while looking at cinematic vamps - among these are Theda Bara,  Betty Amann, Lillian Gish, Pola Negri, Mary Pickford then later, Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner, all beautiful sexual predators that threaten the downfall of men/society.

During the 1990's feminist film theorists have looked back to the silent period to analyse the tropes of femmes-fatales and representations of women. Many of these works have been inspired by Laura Mulvey's use of Freudian psychoanalytic frameworks to negotiate the power-relations of looking and spectatorship: her thesis is that the holder of the gaze subjugates that which is held under the gaze. In looking at the Classical Hollywood period of cinema history, Mulvey suggest that the apparatus of film spectatorship is positioned for the male visual pleasure of objectifying the female image on screen. Other film theorists have followed Mulvey's use of reading film through psychoanalysis. This includes, Molly Haskell, Mary Anne Doane, Barbara Creed, Teresa De Lauretis, E. Ann Kaplan and Christian Metz, among many others.

Due to its themes of death, violence and sex the horror film seems particularly apt for such reading, as what horrifies us is deeply rooted in our personal psychology and in the greater cultural (un)consciousness. Explaining how the dangerous women functions in the horror film, and what they reveal about cultural fears about female sexuality, Barbara Creed comments: "The myths about woman as castrator clearly points to male fears and phantasies about the female genitals as a trap, a black hole which threatens to swallow them up and cut them to pieces...The vagina dentata is particularly relevant to the iconography of the horror film, which abounds with images of that play on the fear of castration and dismemberment".

From the Ancient Myths, down to 19th century painting to film stars of the 20th century, the image of the metaphorically castrating beautiful and deadly woman seems unwaveringly popular. Slightly later than Bara's Vamp, the figure of Pandora is materialised on screen by Louise Brooks in Pandora's Box (1929). Like Pandora of Ancient myth, the flapper Lulu is naïve about the wickedness of her curiosities, that lead to the destruction and death of many of the film's characters. Her deadliness is no less powerful than Theda Bara's Vamp, yet Lulu also possesses an innocence that melds the virgin-whore dichotomy of western cultures' depictions of women's roles.

Filmed in 1920's Weimar Berlin, Pandora's Box mirrors the decadent lifestyles of the time: the public pleasure of drinking, the social life of the city and sexual excess. Pandora/Lulu is in some ways a progressive character as she is linked to bisexuality and independence as she earns her own money etc. But these are “evils” that consume: her relationship with a woman leads to the woman's downfall, as well as the countless men who also fall for her. Although she is a prostitute, she “has a heart” and herself falls in love with her punters, thus becoming a victim of her own sexuality. Angela Carter in her journalistic writing has written on the femme-fatale and Pandora's Box; she says of the film and of Louise Brooks as the character Pandora/Lulu: "Time and permissiveness has dimmed neither the medium nor the message one whit. Brooks' face and presence remain unique; God knows, one would think she was quite enough woman as she is, but nobody, of course, can leave her alone for one moment. Desire does not so much transcend its object as ignore it completely in favour of a fantastic recreation of it. Which is the process by which the femme gets credited with fatality. Because she is perceived not as herself but as the project of those libidinous cravings which, since they are forbidden, must always prove fatal".