To anyone with a basic understanding of film theory Laura Mulvey’s name will inspire myriad thoughts on feminism and the male gaze. For those who engage in film practice Mulvey’s film’s represent a connection between theoretical undertaking — inspiration — and the creation of the moving image. As part of Urgency and Possibility: Counter Cinema in the 70s and 80s presented at the Cooper Gallery Mulvey discussed the historical context in which her films were made, giving a great deal of credit to the atmosphere of collaboration and solidarity within the avant garde movement. In collaboration with Peter Wollen, Mulvey made six experimental films based upon the theories developed in response to, or in sync with, political movements and ideas of feminism in the 1970s and 1980s. In her manifesto ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,’ Mulvey makes plain the notion of the male gaze as systemically dominant. This concept has been thoroughly integrated into canon of film theory. The best examples of her theory visualised are, of course, Mulvey’s films. AMY! was created out of archive film material as well as stylized images shot for the film, and tells the of Amy Johnson, a woman dissatisfied with the fame thrust upon her as well as the use of her image as a representation of British imperialism. A screening of AMY! (1980) followed this insightful interview.
Nell Cunningham: I’m interested in hearing about the relationship between theory and practice and the process by which your films were made.
Laura Mulvey: The way that I’ve been trying to articulate it is that in the first instance, our process if you like, emerged out of the fact that feminism transformed images and representation of women into a political issue, and also transformed them into a site of struggle.
So in the first instance they can be to do with questions of signification; this does not refer to women, this refers to the patriarchal unconscious and then as soon as you move into the world of patriarchal unconscious you start juggling with psychoanalytic theory. And of course psychoanalytic theory and Freud, however much he might in some ways had blind spots, was for my generation of feminists, someone who was interested in exploring the same kinds of topics as we were.
NC: You created these films in collaboration with Peter Wollen. How did that working relationship influence your films?
LM: The point about our collaboration was that it was at it’s most successful with the more programatic films, when we could work everything out in advance and all we had to do when we were actually making. To put it in a rather pretentious way, it was like Hitchcock with his famous drawings, when he got onto the set it was all unwinding in front of him. It wasn’t quite like that, at all really, but we did have a strong idea of what we wanted. We weren’t at that time interested in self-expression. Self-expression in our sector was rather poorly looked on. These were the days when authorship was under erasure. What we wanted to do was explore ideas, explore aesthetic strategies. We didn’t want to find something in ourselves. But at the same time the exchange between us was very important as well as Peter’s long standing commitment to the avant garde that I didn’t have. He was one of the people during the 60s, who was influential in bringing back the 20s avant garde, which came to be called the ‘historical avant garde’. He was very involved particularly with the soviet avant garde and with Screen and bringing those ideas into dialogue with each other. He was very important in terms of writing and I’ve watched the films again I’ve also listened to them and realized what an enormous amount of actual writing contributes to the films. Peter being an experimental writer, a poet, and essayist brings an enormous amount to them.
The other way in which we could share ideas was because we always used preexisting stories, pre existing myths. We loved retold tales, if you like.
Out of Peter’s and my background theoretical work my Visual Pleasure essay, Peter’s Countercinema we found our first phase to be one of what you might call negative aesthetics. So that the politics of our theory was to counter the traditions and conventions you might encounter in normal cinema. So we shot with these very long extended takes. We refused editing. This was to avoid the easy spectatorship of identification and so on. Not just because we wanted to upset identification, it seemed necessary in the tradition of the avant garde, that we were so influenced by, to create a cinema that would, to a certain extent, shock.
NC: There are a lot of filmmakers today, myself included, who have drawn inspiration from your work. What are some of the differences between then and now that you feel stand out?
LM: Our moment was very privileged, I think of it as the end of a particular era. It’s interesting to me that young people are now looking back to the 70s in the way that we in the 70s looked back to the 20s. You can see the skipping across generations and the interweaving of ideas backward and forwards. We saw ourselves in the model of the 20s of part of a movement, being engaged on all kinds of different levels and different kinds of activities. So the combination of programming... There were several international experimental film season, (A Festival of Independent Avant Garde Film) which David Curtis and Simon Field put together, and they were really important in the early 70s. It was there that I first saw Yvonne Rainer’s films, Chantel Ackerman’s films, Valie Export’s films. Though these weren’t specifically dedicated to women they did definitely demonstrate how important women’s work was beginning to be. Also there were Journals, Afterimage, and lots of other journals. At the more theoretical end of the spectrum Screen. Edinburgh Film Festival was extraordinarily important, but also just the accumulation of film work coming out of expanded arts schools, coming out of funding from the British Film Institute, coming out of people just feeling the excitement of the atmosphere and actually making their films.
At the same time the independent filmmakers association was organized, which was in a sense, a collective recognition that there was enough work going on, enough people were actually interested in a radical agenda for us all to kind of group together and name ourselves as something.
In 76 the Edinburgh Film Festival again, did a special symposium on Avant Garde film which Peter organized with Simon Field, and that was very important because it brought filmmakers and theorists together. So you have say, Raymond Bellour talking to Michael Snow... Those were moments when there was so much energy, so many things seemed to be coming together. And we were beginning to make films around that time. It was precisely out of that moment and out of that conjunction of circumstances that we were able to make films. It isn’t as though we would have made films naturally, necessarily in the normal course of events. It was these circumstances that made it possible.
NC: It sounds as if the role of curation, the bringing together of work and theory from around the world was central.
LM: I think that’s an important point, because when you think back to movements, for example the Soviet Avant Garde films of the 1920s the films made were of towering importance but also there was a lot of writing, a lot of debate in journals and so on. Perhaps not as much international exchange at that point as there might have been. That sense of things coming together and having some kind of international solidarity. We tend to remember the films but we should also remember the importance of the infrastructure.
Now I think that digital has been an extraordinary boon and benefit, but has also disbursed the sense of cohesion across the sector. It’s difficult now to have such a sense of community between people who are doing installation work in galleries and people who are doing political documentary. Whereas the importance of the Independent Filmmakers Association and the Bristol event was that right across the spectrum from Agitprop to the Co-op, films were seen to be, able to speak to each other and all to be addressing questions of radical aesthetics and politics.
Interview by Nell Cunningham
Cover image - Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, Riddles of the Sphinx, 1977. Image courtesy the artists and BFI.
Image 1 - Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, AMY!, 1980. Image courtesy the artists and BFI.
Image 2 - Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, Riddles of the Sphinx, 1977. Image courtesy the artists and BFI.
Image 3 - Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, Riddles of the Sphinx (production still), 1977. Image courtesy the artists and BFI.