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I Ought to Be in Pictures

Two feminist film pioneers look at cinema through the lens of their own lives.

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I think I've found the moment when the self-consciously personal voice of New Journalism finally entered film criticism. It happened in the pages of the Village Voice, which during the 1960s had been one of the best places to learn about film. The paper's coverage was remarkably broad, running Jonas Mekas's inspired coverage of the avant-garde scene alongside Andrew Sarris's reevaluation of narrative cinema from an auteurist perspective.

But the moment I'm referring to came in the issue of June 3, 1971, when Richard Corliss, now a film critic for Time, published "Confessions of an Ex-Pornologist," in which he announced, "I used to go to sexploitation movies to masturbate." There followed more details than most people wanted to read, from his choice of raincoat ("I've always been a London Fog man") to his preference for "romantic" narratives over comedy ("laughter breeds limpness"). He confided that he'd given up the practice, partly because of the decline of his favorite type of film, but mostly because he had found "the love of a good woman." I remember much snickering at the time; still, it has to be one of the most honest pieces of film criticism ever written: he tells us what gets him off and tries to explain why. The failure of these explanations to elicit much empathy is perhaps a measure of how tastes, whether erotic or aesthetic, are often beyond argument.

His article had its predecessors on the Voice's pages, though none was as extreme. In December 1970, film critic and journalist Stuart Byron explained how he, a "fattie" since childhood, had lost 115 pounds; he also mentioned that he was gay. Less than two months later, Sarris wrote "Heteros Have Problems Too," an interminably absurd protest against the excesses of gay liberation. Sarris whined that many gays now seemed to regard homosexuality as "more authentic" than heterosexuality, without recognizing their new exuberance as a natural reaction to decades in the closet. On the subject of cinema, he argued that "the aggressive homosexual...prefers to ridicule many of the myths and feelings I revere." He goes on to cite films by Paul Morrissey and Jack Smith, as if these campy escapades were a major threat to the heterosexual order. He compared the gay closet to a "secret" shared by most men: masturbation, thus preparing the soil for Corliss's essay later that year. Today these articles unstandably seem dated, revealing how deeply our attitudes are influenced by the culture of the time.

When these pieces first appeared in print, I was not long out of my teens. I'd met Byron and learned much from Sarris. Yet I was mostly appalled. My appetite for gossip was as yet undeveloped; these articles seemed self-indulgent. Nevertheless, beneath the absurdities of Sarris and Corliss lay a valuable lesson. By understanding how Corliss used sex films and what Sarris felt about homosexuality, the reader could better evaluate the critics' stances, not only toward the films they discussed there but toward other films as well. Though much better confessional film criticism has been published in the decades that followed, this lesson has gone mostly unlearned, as critics still try to speak in the impersonal voice of authority, cataloging merits or demerits without placing these opinions in the context of their own aesthetic positions and lives.

Two new books provide excellent examples of the kind of relationship between the confessional and the professional, the personal and the political, that Sarris and Corliss were so ineptly grasping at. In Home Movies and Other Necessary Fictions, Michelle Citron, a filmmaker and Northwestern University professor, combines autobiography with the story of her interest in film, while in Chick Flicks, B. Ruby Rich interlaces a collection of her previous writing on film (some of which first appeared in the Reader) with chapters that mix autobiography and reflections on the emergence of feminism and feminist filmmaking and theory.

Both Rich and Citron are about 50; both come from lower-middle-class Jewish backgrounds. They both begin their stories by hoping that their parents will like--or would have liked--their books. Both abandoned established academic disciplines for cinema in 1972; both had early enthusiasms for experimental filmmaking. Both also "experimented" sexually, as Citron writes of herself, "sleeping with men, women, men and women." Both are not only feminists but lesbians, and, though writing from an oppositional stance, they lack the self-assured smugness of Sarris and Corliss. Never presenting themselves as possessors of the final answer, they search tentatively through their own and others' lives.

Both writers tie cinema to their personal histories. For them, film viewing, making, and advocacy are never presented as merely an occupation; their involvement with cinema was part of an attempt to come to some new understanding of the world and themselves. To a culture that regards movies as simply entertainment--no different from an amusement-park ride or a video game--these books stand as reminders that art can also be a part of those most vital of quests.

Rich first became involved with film in the early 70s, a period that coincided not only with the beginnings of modern feminism but with the gradual acceptance of film study as an academic pursuit. At that time, few U.S. colleges had film courses and there were few serious journals. By the end of the decade, however, film study was exploding. Rich was associate director of the Film Center at the School of the Art Institute during the 70s, and she moved to New York City in 1981, heading the state's grant program in film and video. Her travels to many women-and-film conferences, well chronicled in her book, placed her at the center of things. Rich, who now teaches part-time at the University of California, Berkeley, observes with discomfort the rise of academic film study, which seemed mostly intent on importing "theory" from Britain, which had in turn imported it from France, resulting in often unreadable tracts that, when one could decipher them, appeared to be not saying very much. A wonderful parody of such writing appeared in the journal Lingua Franca years ago. Titled "L'Ile de Gilligan," and purportedly reprinted from a journal called Discours du Jour, it offered a postmodern, deconstructive analysis of the TV show (the island was a "dystopia"); later at least two academics, knowing it was intended as a parody, allowed that they could easily see it being taken seriously.

Some of the French writers that such papers were based on are themselves major thinkers, and some of these papers are not without value. But what seemed to underlie this trend was a flight from individual subjectivity in search of something that would at least sound academically respectable. Rich identifies one branch of feminist theory as holding that there was a correct position on everything--and it was the job of right-thinking feminists to determine the correct line. But this exclusionary and hierarchical position was hardly unique to feminism. I experienced it myself at a conference in 1975 when presenting a paper that took my own subjective perceptions as its starting point. I was confronted by Brian Henderson, a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, who said, "That's what Descartes tried to do, but he was proven wrong by Freud and Marx."

Rich repeatedly defends pluralism, holding that multiple or opposing positions on an issue can all have value. She does this beautifully in a brief account of the arguments for and against the realist documentary as an agent for political change, finding four "pro" arguments ("ordinary people," for example, "are able to see them/ourselves on the screen") and five "con" ones ("information comes to...replace analysis"). Here, as elsewhere, she advocates no single approach to filmmaking, reaching the more nuanced position that each choice also involves a limitation. She also implies that no one viewer possesses the sole answer to interpreting a film, and that each viewer, critics included, should listen to others.

Especially in its early years, modern feminism had a prescriptive--and proscriptive--side; at the extreme was Andrea Dworkin, with her invocations against heterosexual penetration. But Rich will have none of this. She defended a disastrous early screening of Carolee Schneemann's landmark erotic film Fuses at the Art Institute; for many feminists of the time, giving head was simply not acceptable sex--never mind that Schneemann was also the director or that her film, as Rich eloquently argues, was one of the first sex films to offer a perspective other than a male one. Rich shows similar subtlety regarding the question of pornography: against censorship, she is repulsed by the presentation of women in heterosexual porn but protests the isolation of porn as the sole problem, preferring to see it in the context of objectification in mainstream culture.

At the core of Rich's book is her position that a film can be both an aesthetic object and a window onto lived experience. She believes films can bring about social change by affecting individual lives--and that they should be valued for offering contradictory outlooks. Recounting a symposium called "Imaging of Women," Rich remains sympathetic to the filmmakers sharing the stage--at one moment, she understands Sally Potter's hope that her film Thriller, which recasts a Puccini opera as a feminist murder mystery, will aid in "the overthrow of capitalism"; the next, she appreciates the "lyricism" of Marjorie Keller and the "downtown formalism" of Bette Gordon. Rich similarly rejects the idea of an overarching social theory, quoting writer Christa Wolf's wish to give women "the courage of their own experiences." While her analyses of individual films often draw on well-established feminist ideas, she skillfully presents richly textured arguments for the particular rather than the general, for individual women's points of view rather than anonymous authorial voices, for a diverse cinema grounded in life rather than one that adheres to predetermined concepts and formal strategies.

In alternating this collection of articles from the 70s and 80s with newer reflective and autobiographical passages, Rich seeks to add the story of her own life to the women's stories told in the films she explicates. More importantly, she provides a context for her criticism. Here she is not always successful, though she often dishes great gossip, and anything that makes me laugh out loud more than once deserves a position of honor on my bookshelf. ("I don't know why Ruby is so cold to me," she quotes NYU professor Annette Michelson as telling a mutual friend. "Someone must have told her that I think she's stupid. I don't know who it could have been. I've only told five or six people.") But her life story sometimes sounds a bit self-serving and neatly drawn; several crucial incidents seem inadequately explained. She describes, for instance, her conversion to lesbianism as evolving over a period of years; it begins with a threesome involving her boyfriend and Marjorie Keller. Perhaps this is my male problem: if sex is discussed at all, then I want to know the details, which Rich understandably does not provide in light of her book's anti-voyeuristic perspective. But for her switch from straight to lesbian to make sense, we need to know at least some of the reasons behind it, particularly in light of the debate over whether sexual orientation is innate or a choice. Did Rich always feel an attraction to women, which she had suppressed? Or did she begin to find men less appealing? She paraphrases Adrienne Rich--"the boundary between heterosexual and lesbian was not fixed but fluid, that a woman could cross over at unpredictable moments"--without explaining if this applies to her. Given the extent to which Rich focuses on feminist and lesbian issues in the book, these are not irrelevant questions.

Chick Flicks is spiced with appalling, if completely believable, stories about piggish men--one prevents a student from making her film because she won't sleep with him; another asks Rich at a party to explain what it is that lesbians "do." Overall she makes it easy to understand her own positions and biases, but the book is marred by occasional errors and inconsistencies that seem to be mostly at the expense of men. When she first meets Marjorie Keller in 1972, Keller is with a boyfriend, Saul Levine, whom Rich describes as "then...merely a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute." But Levine was already an accomplished filmmaker when I met him in 1965. Rich also fails to mention that he had already taught film classes at Tufts, where Keller, one of her heroes, had been his student. Most serious of all, she refers more than once to "structuralist" filmmaking and its "namer," P. Adams Sitney. But Sitney wrote of "structural" filmmaking and never intended to refer to the structuralism of Levi-Strauss. This is not a minor point, because Rich cites her disenchantment with structural filmmaking in the 70s as one reason for her growing disaffection with the avant-garde; having already established her quite sensible discontent with film academia, her presumably unintentional misidentification makes this important branch of filmmaking seem even more academic than it was. Rich says Lina Wertmuller can make "misogynist" films, but Jacques Rivette, whose Celine and Julie Go Boating she wishes to claim as a feminist film, cannot be a feminist; he has to share credit with his female collaborators, whom Rich carefully lists. Even her book's index shows curious evidence of bias: some male figures mentioned only one or two times are absent, but every woman that I checked was indexed.

But these are quibbles. Ultimately Rich's book is a moving argument for a newly emerging cinema, a feminist one made largely with women spectators in mind, one that attempts to present the full personal and social contexts that affect their lives. If she seems a little obtuse on why some men are uncomfortable with plots in which women get to murder men, well, no critic is perfect.

If Rich gives us a synoptic history of feminist filmmaking within her diary format, Michelle Citron's Home Movies and Other Necessary Fictions remains resolutely personal. Beginning with a consideration of her father's home movies and the home movie genre, and continuing with an exploration of her life as a filmmaker, it soon becomes--in some ways, collapses into--an incest memoir. As such, it's much better than most: though obviously deeply scarred, she avoids a simple calculus of blame and instead seeks to navigate her way through a traumatic past she only recently has come to terms with. Like Rich, she is able to see the complexity and contradictions of lived experience, even admitting, as some other incest survivors have, that what was mostly horrible was also occasionally gratifying. It's a tribute to her writing that her victimizer--her maternal grandfather--is never demonized in her account, even as we come to hate his actions.

Citron's book is structured as a journey backward in time, arriving finally at the original trauma, which she now correctly names as rape. In analyzing her father's home movies--which her own film Daughter Rite had also analyzed (intercutting them with a fictional story that was closer to the incestuous truth)--Citron reveals power relationships within her family. The home movie, of course, typically displays the family as objects of the father's gaze. One startling insight is her later recognition that the fragmented style of avant-garde filmmaking was well suited to her own fragmented psyche, protecting her well in her early films against unpleasant truths. As she moved to narrative, she found herself including "a moment in which a woman character tells a story about sexual abuse." Fragmentation in avant-garde filmmaking has had many meanings, but the psychological use of it to hide or obfuscate trauma was new to me.

When we're first introduced to the adult Citron, she has little memory of the incest. She becomes ill after learning that a secretly bisexual friend has AIDS, and eventually she's pulled to her lost memories. Along the way, she encounters far more serious illnesses, potentially life-threatening, and possibly related to her trauma: observing the polyps a doctor removes from her sinuses, she is struck by how they resemble penises, and she recalls that her mouth was "a favorite site of my grandfather." Though eventually summoning up the courage to describe the abuse, she worries that "narratives reduce a complex, confusing, overdetermined tidal wave of experiences...into something that is linear, understandable. It cleans up the trauma, makes it tidy...makes it seem safe. This is a lie." And so, near the end of the book, in a chapter titled "The Story in 1956...," the writing begins to resemble a children's story, using prose style to make the point that sexual trauma arrests development. Then after recounting the facts, she concludes, "There is no story...." This is her bravest move: recognizing that putting a name to such trauma does not explain it, can never really describe it. Despite being followed by another chapter describing her relatively happy life today, as well as the scripts of her two major completed films, the 1956 chapter remains indescribably affecting.

In the spirit of Rich's acknowledgment that stylistic choices also can impose limitations, I must add that I found limitations in the approaches of both books. Each writer seeks to discover a cinema that will be relevant to her own life. But implicit in this approach is the idea that films of different persuasions, different worldviews, are of less interest. In her only extended discussion of a work by a man, Rich discredits Alexander Kluge's The Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave, in part for using a male "omniscient" narrator to tell a woman's story. Her position is well argued, even convincing, and can be seen as a useful step on the way toward a less-hierarchical, more-inclusive form of filmmaking. But absent here is the possibility of being moved by a film whose worldview one profoundly disagrees with.

There is, in short, an idea implicit in both books that one looks to cinema for affirmations of the self, whether defined individually or as a member of a larger community. Great films have helped to teach me who I am by presenting a vision that's not my own. Indeed, I would necessarily have to include my appreciation of the work of feminist filmmakers such as Yvonne Rainer here: By showing me how differently someone else sees and thinks, her films broaden my view of what it means to be human. While I hold no brief for the mass suicide that ends Mizoguchi's The Loyal 47 Ronin, I can still be moved to tears by the conviction of the samurai's balletic submission to ritual, each seemingly assuming his proper place in this most sublimely ordered of films, without forgetting the alien social vision this implies. Perhaps Rich learns similarly from the Kluge film, but her tone resembles that of the party bureaucrat she decries elsewhere in the book.

Both books end inconclusively. Rich includes none of her essays after the mid-80s; Citron, with her last two scripts, acknowledges she hasn't completed a film in more than a decade. The energy that informs both books has long since passed from much of our culture. I still recall the Chicago Filmmakers showing of Citron's Daughter Rite that Rich mentions; the audience was almost all women, and there was a real excitement in the air, a feeling that something personally vital to the audience had just occurred. In today's far more fragmented culture, screenings rarely have that feel.

I need to acknowledge, though, that I write from a position of my own. I have always felt at least partly free--free to travel, to experience, to take from cinema as I wish. My experience, in other words, is different from that of most women.

I spent much of the summer of 1981 on Amtrak, renewing my own romance with the North American landscape. Afterward, I waxed enthusiastic to a friend, urging that she try the Chicago-to-Seattle train, which travels through some spectacular scenery. And she did. And she got off in Minneapolis. A somewhat shy woman, and hardly a militant feminist, she later haltingly explained that she had found a succession of men sitting next to her, none of whom she was going to feel safe sleeping beside. Her account, and others I have heard before and since, constitute my own education in how women experience our world differently than men. The "can't we all just be human" response to film feminism, which might have been my own 20 years ago, is just plain wrong.

Chick Flicks by B. Ruby Rich, Duke University Press, $18.95 paper, $59.95 cloth.

Home Movies and Other Necessary Fictions by Michelle Citron, University of Minnesota Press, $19.95 paper, $49.95 cloth.

Rich, Citron, and Rainer will discuss the origins of feminist filmmaking in a program titled "Do Look Back: A Girl's Eye View of Film and Feminism and the Seventies," on Thursday, November 19, at 6 PM at the Film Center, School of the Art Institute, Columbus and Jackson. Rich will also give a presentation called "Lethal Lesbians" at 9:15 Wednesday at the Chicago Lesbian & Gay International Film Festival.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Dorothy Perry.

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