Women as film-makers
Mayne (1994) maintains that the development of feminist film theory and criticism in the United States has been shaped by three major forces, all of which are, like feminist film theory, phenomena of the late 1960s and early 1970s. These include the women’s movement, independent film-making and academic film studies. She goes on to note that the
new feminist documentaries inspired by independent film-making and the women’s movement were also aimed at rejecting stereotyped images of women…Although women’s independent film-making was not limited to documentaries, their explicit concern with women’s issues marked them as independent films’ most decisive influence on feminist film theory and criticism.
Kaplan (1993) considers three main groups of independent women’s film: the formalist, experimental avant-garde film; the realist sociological and political documentary; the avant-garde theory film.
However, the films and film-makers that command the most interest among feminist film critics are those concerned with the problematic fit between cinematic form and female expression. In this context, Kaplan critiques and evaluates realist cinematic strategies and considers the impact of avant-garde film theory that emerged from a critique of realist documentary. Commenting on avant-garde films she maintains that
film makers explore the problem of defining the feminine in a situation where women have no voice, no discourse, no place from which to speak and they examine the mechanisms through which women are relegated to absence, silence and marginality in culture, as well as in classic texts and dominant discourses.
Kaplan considers three avant-garde films—Sally Potter’s Thriller (1979), Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen’s Amy (1980) and Sigmund Freud’s Dora (1979)—and subsequently goes on to consider two films dealing with mothers and daughters—Mulvey and
Wollen’s Riddle of the Sphinx (1976) and Michelle Citron’s Daughter 86 Rite (1978). Feminist documentary is of interest in films such as Daughter Rite, which challenges the very notion of documentary as truth, and in which Citron alternates ‘fake’ cinema verite interviews with two women with home movie footage.3 Mayne (1994:60) notes that ‘Feminists have been attracted to Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen’s Riddle of the Sphinx… for its retelling of the oedipal myth through the questioning voice of the sphinx—the voice located outside established discourse’.4 In the Riddle of the Sphinx, Mulvey and Wollen situate the film in the mother’s consciousness and language. Kaplan states that ‘Narratively, Mulvey/Wollen’s film was new in moving away from the pragmatic/realist level on which motherhood had been treated earlier to a theoretical analysis that combined Lacanian psychoanalysis with Marxist questions’ (ibid.). It has been suggested by Mayne that The Riddle of the Sphinx comes dangerously close to celebrating women’s exclusion from patriarchy (ibid.).
Sally Potter’s Thriller illustrates the dilemma. As Mayne notes, the film is
a rereading of Puccini’s La Boheme from Mimi’s point of view, [and] makes frequent reference to issues of contemporary feminist film theory. At one point…Mimi reads from a collection of writings by Parisian structuralists and bursts into laughter. At the film’s conclusion, Mimi and Musetta embrace while the men exit through the window. The final words of the film, spoken by Mimi, suggest that female bonding is what is repressed in a work like La Boheme.5
Mayne notes that (as with the other feminist films outlined) there is an ambivalence about Thriller, in its simultaneous affirmation of a feminist critique and its recognition of the difficulties involved in such a project. She maintains that the task of feminist criticism is not to resolve the ambivalences but to analyse the nature of the ambivalence. In this context, Kaplan’s work is problematic in a number of theoretical and conceptual areas. Her collapsing of feminist and independent women’s films leads to an indiscriminate analysis of both classical Hollywood films and independent women’s films. More critically, because she has a largely untheorised position, she adopts a psychoanalytic perspective and draws on psychoanalytic concepts in an uncritical way.