As the subject of one of the Essay Film Festival’s special focuses, cinematographer, photographer, writer and director Babette Mangolte was welcomed to the stage by Laura Mulvey. Having outlined the trajectory of her impressive career; Mulvey spoke, as a friend and a direct contemporary, of Mangolte’s 1970s beginnings. A pivotal time for women’s cinema, of which Mangolte found herself at many centres, it was, as Mulvey surmised, “a moment of political and aesthetic importance.”
Born in France, Babette Mangolte was one of the first women to study cinematography at ‘L’Ecole Nationale de la Photographie et de la Cinematographie’, a school of some prestige founded by Louis Lumière in 1922. After graduating, and then working with Marcel Hanoun on L’Automne (1972), Mangolte relocated to New York City, a place where she felt she could create her own work, and work with other women. There, she found herself absorbing the work of experimental film figures like Jonas Mekas, Michael Snow and Stan Brakhage; discovering musicians, choreographers and performance artists like Trisha Brown, Philip Glass and Marina Abramovic; and beginning an illustrious career intersecting all of these points of interest, with her camera as the connective instrument.
Amongst her early work as cinematographer, two collaborations immediately stand out, and indeed remain touchstones for Mangolte within a wider consciousness. Shortly after arriving in New York, Mangolte shot two films for dancer, choreographer and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer, Lives of Performers (1972) and Film About a Woman Who… (1974). Both films that reflect on the presence of the camera within choreography, Mangolte developed themes she would engage with in her own directorial work and other collaborations, and established a friendship that she would return to creatively over 30 years later, capturing Rainer’s performance AG Indexical (2007) in a film of the same name.
Around the same time as meeting Rainer, Mangolte came into contact with Chantal Akerman, and together they produced two of Akerman’s more formalist short form works, The Room and Hotel Monterey (1972), and two no less rigorous features, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975) and News From Home (1977). Speaking about this collaboration, Laura Mulvey said that for her, it displayed that “women’s cinema was not only possible, but happening.” Though they would not work together again they remained close, and the experience of working with Akerman undoubtably shaped Mangolte’s thinking, and indeed her work as director.
It is a selection of this work that forms Essay Film Festival’s focus, with two sessions of Mangolte’s films playing and the director present in conversation. In the first, the connecting element was the camera, with Mangolte’s debut feature The Camera: Je Or La Camera: I (1977) paired with Je Nous, I, Or Eye Us (2014), a film created from unused material from that first film. The second was themed around the land, featuring two films about the natural landscape, There? Where? (1979), a short that preempted a feature, The Sky on Location (1982), followed by one about manufactured ones, Visible Cities (1991).
In The Camera: Je Or La Camera: I, Mangolte explores, as many have, what it means to use the camera, how it effects the subject, how it relates to the operator, and how it impacts on a situation, using the subjective camera as an element to explore the specificities of her process as well as the more universal realities of photographer and subject. Described by Mangolte as “a clash between stillness and movement”, what makes The Camera unusual is not what the film aims to do, but the manner by which it does it. More specifically, how it uses the moving image to look at static photography, using the mechanisms of one camera to investigate the process of the other. Split into three parts, the film’s first third has Mangolte taking the portraits of a number of subjects in a studio; with a second section devoted to capturing her process for street photography; and a final section showing the produced images, her discussing the photos with a friend, explaining their contexts, the ideas behind their creation and deciding the exhibition layout.
In all three parts, there is what Mangolte calls a “reflection of the medium in process, and of the self in process”, a witnessing of the act of the creation of images directly through Mangolte’s camera, allowing the viewer to see as she sees, and think visually as she does. In the first, where the camera remains static and it is the contents of the frame that are arranged, we hear her directives to her subjects, as she organises, instructs and provokes them. Experimenting with the composition of character itself, Mangolte bends human bodies and stretches faces to her will, exposing to the viewer the dynamics of power between the writers of stories - in this case visual, static ones - and those involved in them. In the second, the viewer is made privy to the motion of the camera, Mangolte walking and driving around New York, leading the viewer through her camera, again in first person, darting about with her inquisitive eye. As Mangolte looks around the buildings and streets of her new city, a camera shutter snaps over the frame, demonstrating for the viewer where she would fire, the exact points where the photographer makes the choice to crystallise a scenario. In the third segment, the switch is from the immediate to the reflective, with the product of the process made material, photos printed and set out on the floor; and with that, the potential for applied contexts, and reassessment, or the application of, meaning.
It’s somewhat strange, for a debut film to be so reflective on process. You might expect such a succinct summation on craft to come late on in a career, but for Mangolte, it also makes sense. The Camera, though a first film, comes after a long period of thinking about cinema and photography, after a life immersed in cinephilia, and after all of her work with Akerman, Rainer and others as cinematographer, much of which is deeply concerned with form(s), both cinematic and human. The Camera is also not definitive. All the questions raised, and the ideas explored are open, points from which to begin the inquiries seen in the films that would follow. Indeed, the work which might be expected to be more conclusive, Je Nous, I, Or Eye Us, made 37 years later from filmed material that didn’t make it into the cut of The Camera, is, if anything, even more open ended - odd shots of the artist at work, offcuts and practise frames, with questions scrawled onto the image digitally. A work made from other work, which itself reflects on working.
Another experiment,There? Where? was made as a test for the decidedly more ambitious The Sky on Location. Having grown up in France, Mangolte had a desire “to investigate something that does not exist in Europe,” to see those landscapes seen in the films of John Ford, the “unknown territory” of the American West. With There? Where? she sets the mechanics of this into motion, learning first how to see and move through such a place, then how to represent that place and the experience of it. Just 8 minutes long, in the film a number of disembodied voices question the landscape, their response to it, and the possible meanings it evokes - whilst the camera travels through these terrains, mostly by car, capturing parts of the land and obscuring others.
A more complete realisation of this idea comes with Mangolte’s hugely impressive feature, The Sky on Location, made over a lengthy trip across the American West. A dense, sprawling essay on the grandeur of a great length of the American landscape as Mangolte experienced it, The Sky on Location layers stunning compositions against interposed musings on “space, openness and solitude” from three narrative voices, much of which takes inspiration from Barbara Novak’s text ‘Nature and Culture’. Though the narration covers topics broad and complex - from environmental concerns, personal observations, historical investigations and studied contexts - the film’s main thesis as an essay is in fact visual, a “topology of colour” that explores how the fluctuation of lighting changes the look, shape, texture and colour of these incredible expanses, a place where “changing light is an enormous event.”
At one point in the film, Mangolte’s voice says she is “looking for the landscape of the mind”, and indeed in the film there is a battle between intellectual impulses, the need to look into the histories and the ideologies embedded in the land; and the viscerality of the real, the intensity of the emotion al response to the expanses laid out in front of her. With the three competing, contrasting voices all presenting alternating viewpoints and experiences, narratively the film is almost impossibly dense if also importantly multivariate, a compression of oppositional oral testimonies competing for soundtrack time that serve to juxtapose the vastness and awe-inspiring emptiness of the imagery.
Other than the voices, the first sign of life doesn’t come until over an hour in when some vultures descend upon the scene. The first humans arrive even later, and, as Mangolte explained, having been shot alongside Reagan’s first election, where fears were greatest about what actions his administration might take with regards to conservation, the environmentalism expounded in the narration is no coincidence. The Sky on Location is a kind of requiem for the untouched landscape, for the kind of rare space that humans haven’t been able to impose upon or overcome.
“Landscape is mute, it does not reveal anything.” Yet under Mangolte’s phenomenal eye and sharp mind, this seems declaratively false. This is vital portraiture, a careful, nuanced visual study in the transformative potential of moving light that vivifies and activates the landscape; offering an outsider’s insight into experiencing it for the first time, whilst having knowledge of what it has represented over the years, to those who’ve come across it, those who’ve witness it being compromised, and to those who’ve had it taken away from them.
If with The Sky on Location, Mangolte was “hypnotised by the West”, in Visible Cities, the reaction is more one of repulsion, a film that has Mangolte reworking ideas from literary psychogeographer Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’ to explore the re-territorialisation of the natural landscape. In the film, two women wandering around the new condominium developments popping up across Southern California, recoiling in horror at the shift from natural, disorderly and unpredictable space to regimented, structured and utterly lifeless constructs, filmed in various states of assembly by Mangolte.
Switching from the dialogues between Genghis Khan and Marco Polo of Calvino’s novel, Mangolte’s film has what the director calls “two powerless women” of ambiguous relation to each other looking for a possible domestic space to move into within an arena where every available residence is “an investment, not a home”. As well as being an effective exercising of the perverse comfort of conformity, Mangolte shows the increasing challenge of living within gendered, moneyed spaces, and capitalism’s growing developmental infringements upon ever more remote locales. “Who owns that horizon?” asks one girl pointedly. In Mangolte’s landscape films, a shift from wonder to disillusionment emerges, parallel to the continual destruction of the natural environment, from the pre-developmental “land in peril” of The Sky on Location to the post-degradation “fantasy of planning” in Visible Cities.
The selected Mangolte films at Essay Film Festival might only offer snippets of the filmmaker’s oeuvre, but even in those seen there are multitudes - complexities of perspectives, politics and position. What connects them is the centricity of the act of cinematography, what Mangolte calls “composition in three dimensions”. It’s hard not to engage directly with the image when you are the active and sole creator of it, when you have made the choice to take steps towards the reclamation of filmmaking, both as a technician and a creative, within an industry that had been to this point built around the prevention of your doing so.
Words by Matt Turner