Killing Time: The Violent Imaginary. of Feminist Media
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From the first feminist murder fantasy in cinema, Germaine Dulac’s The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923), to the ugly realism of Coralie Trinh Thi and Vir – ginie Despentes’s nihilist millennium-closer, Baise-Moi (1999),1 cinema by women, not surprisingly, imagines its violence as vengeance, as a just-cause response to the exploitation of the body, the burden of sexual difference, and/or psychic violations of everyday life under patriarchy. Feminist media have been studied for both their narrative content and their politics of form—that is, for their attempt to articulate sexual politics as also a problem of the form any representation takes (most notably in writings by Laura Mulvey , Teresa de Lauretis , and Mary Ann Doane ). In feminist media practice, this problem is worked through both in terms ofspecific issues related to representation (such as, how does one photograph the female body?) and in terms of the aesthetic or formal traditions of the medium being used (such as, in cinematic terms, how does one create a sequence of images that does not reproduce gender binarisms?). Underlying both of these concerns is the entanglement of and the tension between aesthetics, ethics, and politics. What is (perhaps not surprisingly) rarely discussed is the fact that the feminist film canon is strewn with corpses, imagined or literal, male and female, depicted
or described. Most often the violence is performed by the women in the film, but in films such as those by Marlene Gorris (A Question of Silence , Broken Mirrors , and Antonia’s Line ) violence against women is also explicitly represented as a condition in which the characters live and enact violence. Rapists, johns, cruel husbands, shop clerks, and even plastic surgeons are given their comeuppance in the canon, sometimes with guns but also with domestic tools or shopping carts. There are also acts of violence without recipients of violence (Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen ; see fig. 20 ]) as well as reflections on the violent imaginary itself (Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon ).
Rather than focusing exclusively on the plots and the moral and political issues the films raise, I want to think about the act of violence and its motivations in terms of a politics of time, therefore looking at the temporal imaginary that subtends the act of violence and its formal embodiment. This politics of time comprises at least four temporal registers: the time of the form of the work of media art, the time of the represented acts and their environment, the time of the viewer, and, most interestingly, the time of the agent herself. With regard to the latter, the agent’s age and subjective development and/or acts within the story world or visual space of the piece can be—and
Figure 20 Scene from Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1974 (with permission of Martha Rosler).
often are—of a different temporal register than is that of the other characters, events, and environments represented. This difference between the female agent and the world(s) that form her social, historical, and/or aesthetic context constitutes the bad timing (or mistiming) of the violent imaginary.
The films enact a rupture in the chronometric time of linear history by giving priority to the felt body; and this rupture is given form through the performance of violence. This chapter draws on feminist phenomenology and film theory to elaborate upon that with which the films themselves are concerned. I first trace the violent imaginary as that which develops in response to the conflicting temporalities that form the context for female subjectivity in modernity. These connections between temporality, violence, gender, and modernity are elaborated by working through three key moments of the feminist film canon produced largely in Europe and North America. I then anchor the feminist theory and history to (chiefly) three films that correspond to these three eras of feminism. In these three films, and others that I reference, violence is a manifestation of a temporal crisis in the relationship between technologies of modernity and the body—specifically, the female body as a prize commodity shared by the scientific and entertainment industries. This crisis has two interwoven registers of significance: the women in these films are aging; and, formally, the films reflect upon temporality, technology, and the body. The films express that felt body, giving an aesthetic form to what Vivian Sobchack (1994, 85) describes as follows: “We often experience the changes of aging as somehow alien to us, as if the ‘real self’ is frozen in time, imprisoned somewhere within the aging body."
The three films that I use as keys to, or anchors for, this experience are: Germaine Dulac’s The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923), Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), and Kim Derko’s The Book of Knives (1996). In 1923 French director Germaine Dulac’s character Mme Buedet loads a gun with real bullets in the hope that her insufferable husband will shoot himself and bring to a close the excruciating and endless boredom of her married life. The film is structured like a repeating loop, without resolution, mirroring the repetition of daily habits of bourgeois heteronorma – tivity. In Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, the minimal plot also focuses on the domestic life of a middle-aged, middle-class woman, Jeanne; however, unlike Dulac’s character, Jeanne is a prostitute who, towards the end of the film, kills a client. Her actions are given formal and dramatic equivalence in real-time, whether she waits, peels potatoes, drops a fork, or kills a john. Over twenty years later, in The Book of Knives, a short experimental narrative film by Canadian film
maker Kim Derko, Iris Campbell, a character whose frozen image as a medical commodity has not been permitted to age since 1905, kills her plastic surgeon in 1995. The film is structured as a series of case studies, and the technologies of imaging are central to the medical diagnoses to which Iris is subjected, functioning both as structural and dramatic elements of the film’s form and content.