copyright 2012, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 54, fall 2012

Feminist film history

reviewed by Diane Waldman

Vicki Callahan (ed), Reclaiming the Archive: Feminism and Film History. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010. $29.95 paper. 472 pages.

Suzanne Leonard, Fatal Attraction. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. $77.95 hardcover; $21.95 paper. 141 pages.

What does feminist film history and criticism look like at the end of the first decade of the 21st century? Two recent books, one a large, multi-authored anthology, and one a single-authored volume on a single film, give us an excellent idea.

Vicki Callahan’s edited collection Reclaiming the Archive is an ambitious and comprehensive work. After a thoughtful general introduction, the book is divided into four sections: “Gazing Outward: The Spectrum of Feminist Reception History,” “Rewriting Authorship,” “Excavating Early Cinema,” and “Constructing a (Post)feminist Future.” Each section’s introduction maps out previous feminist approaches to the subject matter and describes how the section’s contributors build upon, challenge, or advance prior conceptualizations or debates.

In her introduction Callahan sets out her goals for the volume and the central themes and metaphors that organize her concept of the archive and what it means to reclaim it for the political project(s) of feminism. Thus the book is meant to intervene in both film history and feminist studies as traditionally practiced, to demonstrate the diversity of approaches possible within feminist film history, to broaden the discussion beyond the usual Anglo-American context to an inclusion of other cinemas, and to deal with an “expansive chronological terrain (from early cinema to postfeminist texts)” (2).

In this short space I can only give what I hope are some tantalizing glimpses of the ways in which the essays in the collection deliver on these promises. Several of the essays demonstrate the ways in which the judgments of traditional film history are altered when viewed through the lens of feminism. Both Victoria Duckett’s work on Sarah Bernhardt’s Hamlet and Amy Shore’s on Votes for Women show how film history’s “failures” (the Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre and the Edison kinetophone, respectively) become something else again when viewed from the standpoint of the women involved in their use. Not only does Duckett convincingly argue for the experimental nature of Bernhardt’s work but for a time when film had not yet distinguished itself from the other arts by denigrating its “theatrical” elements. Similarly, Shore demonstrates the ways in which Votes for Women was not merely a cinematic “flop,” but part of a concerted strategy on the part of the militant Women’s Political Union to engage with the visual culture of modernity and to challenge cinema’s patriarchal tendencies in order to advance the cause of suffrage. Terri Simone Francis ingeniously links a staple of early cinema history (Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show) to recent representations of “unruly” black female spectatorship in Scream 2 and Scary Movie:

“The film sheds light on a potentially critical, performative spectatorship in which misrepresented or underrepresented viewers claim powers of looking back and recalibrating norms of cinematic desire to their own advantage” (117).

The collection amply demonstrates a diversity of approaches and methods: some of the essays are more textually-based, others more contextual or ethnographic, most an intriguing combination of the two, as in Ayako Saito’s reading of films such as Tsuma wa kokuhaku suru (A wife confesses) and interviews with Ayako Wakao to demonstrate how the representations of women in what are usually described as “Masumura’s films” are shaped by Wakao’s interpretation and performance. Interestingly, several of the essays in the collection include in their analyses films that point reflexively to earlier films, cinema-going or fandom:

And several of these writers are reflexive about their own moment of historical writing. In this way, Laura Mulvey reflects upon the reasons for textually-based film studies in Britain in the 1970s and argues that new ways of consuming old films (video or DVD) “have brought me to reconsider my 1970s theories of spectatorship” (30). Similarly casting a glance back, Patricia White writes about the ways in which a 1990s fascination with “lesbian chic” permits the availability of new kinds of archival materials and allows us to recognize the role played by homoeroticism in the movie fandom of earlier eras. Most of these essays make innovative use of a variety of primary source materials: films, screenplays, trade and fan magazines, newspaper articles, obituaries, interviews, letters, diaries, photographs, posters. Some contributors are quite thoughtful about what their source materials do or do not reveal (Giuliana Muscio’s essay on women screenwriters in American silent cinema is exemplary in this regard). Others, like Sandy Flitterman-Lewis’s poignant piece on anti-fascist affinities between Virginia Woolf and Germaine Dulac remind us of the intuitive ways in which historians’ work often initiate and proceed.

True to its goals the collection maintains a strong international presence. In addition to the essays previously mentioned, included are Geneviève Sellier’s piece on the representation of women in films of the Nouvelle Vague, Joanne Hershfield’s chapter on early Mexican sound film Santa’s figuration of femininity and modernity, and Soyoung Kim’s discussion of a local feminist sphere operating against the blockbuster and in and through new forms of media in Korea. As for the “expansive chronological terrain,” the organization of the book places more emphasis on early cinema (and in addition to essays previously mentioned there are strong essays that deal wholly or at least in part with early cinema by Janet Staiger on the fallen woman and Shelley Stamp on Lois Weber) and contemporary cinema/new media (in addition to those previously mentioned there are essays by Yvonne Tasker on women filmmakers and contemporary notions of authorship, Anna Everett on cyberfeminism and cyberwomanism, and Callahan’s own contribution, an interview with multimedia/performance artist Lynn Hershman Leeson). This coverage is not necessarily a weakness as it provides a balance to the classical Hollywood cinema already mined (to continue the excavation metaphor) by an earlier generation of feminist film historians. Additionally, essays in the sections on reception and authorship deal with the periods in between early and contemporary cinema. In addition to the essays mentioned previously, Suzanne Leonard has an interesting piece on the ideological work done by the discourse surrounding the love affair of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

If I have one disagreement with Reclaiming the Archive it is with the centrality of Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in Callahan’s account of the so-called “turn to history” in feminist film studies. While I might agree with Janet Bergstrom and Mary Ann Doane that Mulvey’s essay represented “the inaugural moment – the condition of possibility – of an extended theorization of the female spectator” (“The Spectatrix,” Camera Obscura 20-21, 1989, cited by Callahan, 3), my own research and memory tell me that much good feminist historical research was done before the publication of Mulvey’s ground-breaking essay in 1975: for example in Women and Film (1972-1976), The Velvet Light Trap (1971- ) and Jump Cut (1974-). Even within the volume itself, Flitterman-Lewis refers to a booklet on Germaine Dulac, part of which she translated for Women and Film in 1974. At any rate, a statement such as, “In many ways, one might say that feminist film history begins in 1975 with Laura Mulvey’s essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,’” threatens to reify this particular version of feminist film studies history, and it seems contradictory to the otherwise generous spirit of the collection as

“intended as a correction to a kind of historical amnesia within our own history as feminist film scholars” (4).

In her essay in Reclaiming the Archive Mulvey theorizes the relation between film text and context that now informs her own understanding and that of many of the contributors to the volume:

“This process has continued to expand and broaden the scope of film studies so that a film may be understood, Janus-like, as both deeply imbricated with its surrounding context but also finding a formal visualization for that context through its own, specific, cinematic and dramatic form. To my mind the form in which a social context is translated into the language of cinema, the ways in which it finds its meanings and representation in images ordered and organized within a cinematic narrative, works in this double direction. While the cinema reflects the society that produces it, its mediating images, forms, and cinematic language contribute to the way a society understands and internalizes itself as image.” (19)

It is this type of understanding that also governs Reclaiming’s contributor Suzanne Leonard’s smart, engaging, and passionately argued book on Fatal Attraction (1987). As Leonard explains in her introduction,

Fatal Attraction’s exposé of a man who embarks on a casual affair which later reveals itself to have disastrous consequences also had deep resonance in its historical moment, and Fatal Attraction quickly became understood as a zeitgeist film for its skillful treatment of cultural anxieties regarding career women, sexuality, employment, and infidelity” (1).

The book’s organization follows this premise, beginning first with textual analysis of the ways the film generates suspense and its central motifs, then moving on to a discussion of the film’s genre hybridity and the way it is a “postmodern montage” (35) of the melodrama, horror film, neo-noir, and erotic thriller. Not content merely to catalogue the ways in which the film follows different kinds of generic conventions, Leonard demonstrates how viewing the film through the lens of each genre opens it up to alternative kinds of readings. For example, she shows how viewing the film as a melodrama creates the possibility for sympathy for the film’s otherwise monstrous antagonist, Alex Forrest, and a reading of the ending as something other than a conservative endorsement of family values.

The next three chapters of Leonard’s book address the film’s cultural context directly. Chapter 3 discusses the 1980s feminist response to this depiction of the single career woman in the context of Reagan-era backlash; Chapter 4, the way the film’s “obsession with the deadly consequences of sex had a clear socioeconomic subtext” (88) and promotes a distrustful, privatized, neoliberal agenda. The last chapter of the book alone is worth its price for the thoughtful way Leonard sketches out the legacy of Fatal Attraction and the figure of Alex Forrest for a postfeminist age. Beginning with an analysis of the reference to the film in Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), Leonard sees Alex as “a spectral figure in female popular culture” who

“lives in perpetuity as an unfortunate woman who does not secure a companion…” (110).

Fatal Attraction, through Leonard’s skillful analysis, provides a perfect illustration of the way in which “a social context is translated into the language of cinema” and

“the way its mediating images, forms, and cinematic language contribute to the way a society understands and internalizes itself as image” (see quote from Mulvey above).

In short,

“Alex contributed to creating the reality she is credited with reflecting” (111);

“her presence codified an anxiety that became all the more real…as a result of her appearance on the popular culture landscape” (112).

This book, like Callahan’s collection, clearly demonstrates the continued relevance and importance of feminist approaches to film, media, and popular culture for a new generation of scholars, students, and other interested readers.

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