Images from Happy Mother's Day
A throng of reporters greets Mrs. Fischer as she emerges from the hospital after giving birth to quintuplets. Initially upbeat, Mrs. Fischer soon lowers her gaze and refuses to engage with the crowd.
Mrs. Fischer adamantly tells filmmakers Richard Leacock and Joyce Chopra that her children will never be on display to outsiders.
Throughout the film the prematurely born quintuplets remain in the hospital; the film includes no images of the mother with her most famous offspring.
Images from Joyce at 34
Chopra’s self-reflexive documentary about becoming a mother and working as a filmmaker opens with two still images. Here she considers her own image.
Chopra admits that she was proud to return to work only 6-weeks after he daughter’s birth.
Chopra’s own mother plays a prominent role in the film, both as a site of maternal dis-identification for Chopra, and also as a working mother in her own right. In this lively scene, Chopra’s mother and her friends recount, much in the same manner as 70s c-r sessions, the difficulties they endured as working mothers in the early 50s.
Chopra foregrounds her frustrated attempts to perform her professional work alongside the labor of mothering.
Sarah Rose Cole explores the editing table.
In the film’s final sequence Chopra admits that she doesn’t think she’ll ever have a second child. “It would be the end,” she laughs.
|by Shilyh Warren
In the opening scene of Richard Leacock and Joyce Chopra’s direct cinema classic, Happy Mother’s Day (1963), Mrs. Andrew Fischer emerges from the hospital while a sober male voice-off narrates the cause of her sudden fame: the mother of five has just given birth to quintuplets. Upon her exit from the hospital, Mrs. Fischer finds herself surrounded by a mob of male journalists. In the characteristic grainy, black and white footage of U.S. direct cinema or cinema vérité, Mrs. Fischer walks to her car and pauses to answer a few questions. The journalists crowd her, insinuating microphones and cameras at close proximity. Visible between two reporters in the foreground, Mrs. Fischer stands and smiles politely, but sighs heavily before uttering her first words in the film:
In response to her own profound statement, she laughs awkwardly and then a cameraman in the foreground suddenly shifts his equipment, blocking our view of Mrs. Fischer. As the film advances, it becomes increasingly clear that Mrs. Fischer is an implausible candidate for the hungry eyes and ears of the cameras and microphones that surround her. Finally, unable to maintain her composure in this first scene, Mrs. Fischer turns away from the mob after a few more questions, lowers her gaze and stops talking.
Multiple interviews will follow in the film, each one more absurd than the others, as the Fischers become Aberdeen’s greatest local attraction. Reporters from outlets such as the Ladies Home Journal and The Saturday Evening Post are pictured photographing the happy family in dad’s “only luxury,” The Model-T Ford, or out and about on the farm, or wading through the mountains of commodities donated to the family. Mrs. Fischer tries on an expensive store-bought dress and answers questions from the ladies’ club representative about which colors she’d like them to use at the lunch that will be held in her honor. Throughout these scenes, Mrs. Fischer is often recalcitrant, slow to answer, and quite likely to respond with a shrug and an admission that she really doesn’t care. It seems that as much as the local townsfolk and national media claim to want to celebrate the remarkable birth of her children, Mrs. Fischer is on to the media’s ruse.
The new mother of quintuplets constantly refuses to meet the gaze of the camera and she rarely responds to the voice-off questions of the interviewer. In one of the few interview moments when she does respond, Mrs. Mary Ann Fisher is decidedly contrary. The interview follows a scene in which the remarkable numbers of goods donated to the family are displayed on a lawn for the purposes of a photograph. Automobiles, clothing, high chairs, gallons of milk, a mountain of jarred baby food, dishes, toys, and other gifts are splayed out for a photographer, who perches high atop a ladder in order to capture the shot. The ruse Mrs. Fischer seems to understand is evident in the juxtaposition of scenes in which the fetishization of the consumer goods parallels the commodification of the family itself. In the interview scene that follows, in which the couple self-reflexively consider their own fame, Mr. Fischer states his reluctant opinion that if tourists should come to the town to see the quintuplets, the visitors must be allowed in the Fischer’s home. Mrs. Fischer disagrees, stating unequivocally,
In response to the voice of a female interviewer (likely Joyce Chopra), Mrs. Fischer declares, “To anybody,” before she looks away, and then resumes defiantly, eyes still cast downward,
As the central figure in Happy Mother’s Day, Mrs. Fischer manifests a clever skepticism about the interest granted her by strangers. Her reluctance to be the star of both the film and the events in Aberdeen raises important questions about the relation between the filmed subject and the film that traffics in her image and her story.
Although the title of the film references a decidedly gendered affair, Happy Mother’s Day is far from a feminist film. Demonstrated by the complicity with discourses of journalism consistently evoked in the figures of cameramen and reporters, the film self-consciously takes part in the hysterical reaction to Mrs. Fischer’s reproductive capacities, which reduce the woman to the affairs of her uterus. [open endnotes in new window] Mrs. Fischer’s reluctance to engage with the media that court her suggests that she feels she is being treated not like a queen (as one Aberdeen woman suggests) but rather like a freak. We can only speculate, of course, since the other side of her reluctance means we are never granted access to Mrs. Fischer’s feelings and thoughts about her dilemma. Mrs. Fischer, as she states so clearly in her opening lines, does “not have many feelings,” at least not many that she is willing to share with the film crew.
Before feminist filmmakers appropriated and reformulated the codes and conventions of direct cinema, including hand-held cameras, location shooting, intimate interviews, and occasional voice-over, direct cinema had very little to say to or about women. As much as Happy Mother’s Day makes possible a critical stance on the commodification of the Fischer family and implicates its own gaze in the media’s exploitative impulses, the film cannot find its way into Mrs. Fischer’s own version of her story. At no point do we hear about Mrs. Fischer’s pregnancy, the birth of any of her ten children, her concerns about the impact the new infants will have on her life, her family, or her finances. Our knowledge about Mrs. Fischer is interrupted, fragmentary, and highly constructed around the narrative of her ascension to media stardom. The title of the film, Happy Mother’s Day, comments ironically on what appears to be a very unhappy woman. Whether Mrs. Fischer was made suddenly morose by her new family configuration or is simply confounded by the relentless media attention, we never find out.
By the end of the decade, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the diverse coalitions of activists we refer to as the U.S. women’s movement would popularize and politicize the practice of consciousness-raising, which urged women to develop epistemological and theoretical frameworks based on their own experiences rather than received (patriarchal, capitalist) modes of thinking and being. To reconsider Happy Mother’s Day in what Linda Williams calls a “feminist hindsight” made possible by activism of the 1970s is to stage an alternative path into the feminist film archive of the 1970s. Although women’s documentaries were hotly contested within feminist film theory of the seventies because of their aesthetic and conceptual resemblance to direct cinema films, the example of Happy Mother’s Day reminds us to consider an alternative relation at work between feminist documentaries and its vérité predecessors.
Joyce Chopra’s Joyce at 34 (1972), for example, captures what Mrs. Fischer denied having, that is, many feelings, particularly about motherhood. Chopra, who worked on several films with renowned documentary auteurs such as Leacock and Robert Gardner, made Joyce at 34 in 1972 with Claudia Weill. Her first film, Chopra’s Joyce at 34 is a highly self-reflexive take on the process of constructing images and narratives about the figure of the mother.
A film about a filmmaker who is also a mother, Joyce at 34 is about the labor of mothering and the work of filmmaking. Importantly, Joyce at 34 is the first feminist documentary to explore the range of emotions, duties, and subjective acrobatics between personhood, motherhood, and labor that define motherhood for one individual from her own perspective. The film thus challenges the legacy of direct cinema in Happy Mother’s Day on two counts. Formally it makes explicit the technologies of cinematic meaning making, questioning thus its own act of representation. And thematically it grants authority to the mother’s own version of her story, insinuating thus a new politicized maternal figure into public visual discourse. In other words, the film explicitly converses with and contests its relation with direct cinema in ways that exceed its flattened designation as a derivative vérité film. This holds true for many women’s documentaries of the 1970s, including The Woman’s Film (1971) and Janie’s Janie (1972) which further demonstrate how women’s documentary films often take up, resist, and transform direct cinema conventions in order to grant unprecedented authority and political legitimacy to women of color, working class women, and women fighting poverty.
In her landmark 1978 article about women’s documentaries, Julia Lesage countered anti-realist critiques about the political limitations of women’s vérité films, arguing that feminist documentaries accomplished fundamental political interventions. Feminist documentaries, for example, re-envisioned the iconography of women, politicized domestic space, and created an audio-visual analogue to the practice of consciousness-raising. For Lesage, feminist documentaries accomplished political acts not in spite of the realist audio-visual aesthetics they deployed, but precisely because of them. In her 1975 review of Sheila Page’s Women’s Happytime Commune, E. Ann Kaplan’s also forged a connection between feminist documentary and the political program of consciousness-raising. Like Kaplan’s early work on 70s women’s cinema, Lesage makes the realist aesthetics of feminist documentaries essential to their political relevance. She writes,
Placed within the context of a movement that sought to destroy patriarchy by convincing women that they needed feminism, bridging the personal and the political, and emphasizing commonalities amongst women as a political class, women’s documentaries screen a particular notion of the political. The aesthetics of feminist documentaries, in Lesage and Kaplan’s analyses, were most clearly legible within the discourse, rhetoric, and activism of the women’s liberation movement. The films gained political purchase because they shared the political vision of a collective, radical movement, particularly, in Lesage’s words, “the ethos” and goals of consciousness-raising (507). Lesage and Kaplan thus fasten the political impulses of feminist documentaries to their aesthetic conventions.
I agree with Lesage that the documentaries produced by feminist filmmakers sought relevance with movement politics. I also agree with Lesage that many feminist documentaries launch a return to the context of consciousness-raising—an arena of debate in feminist theory that went through a long silent period throughout the eighties but began receiving renewed attention in the mid-nineties, particularly amongst feminist literary critics. However, in this essay I supplement Lesage’s landmark engagement with feminist documentary films of the 1970s, which insists on relations between form and politics, by paying close attention to the way each film constructs political subjectivity within and also beyond the frame. The documentaries I re-read in this essay, Self-Health (1974) and The Woman’s Film (1971), stress identification, empathy, and authentic shared experience in conversation with the idealist rhetoric of various forms of 70s feminisms, including radical and socialist feminism, which emphasized the imbrications of class and gender. Shaped of course by my own feminist hindsight, this return to several landmark documentaries of the feminist seventies argues that the films continue to exert political and theoretical pressure to modes of thinking about feminist and cinematic constructions of political subjectivity.
Self-Health and The Woman’s Film, for example, despite their common allegiance to a practice of consciousness-raising, apply pressure to different political visions, indeed political fantasies, and constitute distinct political subjects. The Woman’s Film focuses on women of color and working class women and screens an imaginary of women’s liberation as a coalition movement where the most oppressed members of society inhabit the center. Writing about the women in the film, one reviewer remarks,
Whereas identification and experience in The Woman’s Film do not depend therefore on identity and sameness, in Self-Health women’s collective oppression and action is activated through a discourse of anatomical similarity. Read through the lens of consciousness-raising, The Woman’s Film and Self-Health thus provide evidence of feminist political fantasies as well the limitations of the rhetoric and visual manifestations of female solidarity.
Consciousness-raising has constituted a problem for feminist theory in the wake of post-structuralism—one that is at once theoretical and practical as well as aesthetic. This is because consciousness-raising promulgates the centrality of terms at odds with a poststructuralist, discursively-constituted and fragmented antihumanist subject: namely, experience and identity. If the renderings of political subjectivity in Self-Health and The Woman’s Film pose problems thus for feminist and film theory, it is not simply or solely because they are presented in the language of realism, but rather because concepts such as action, agency, autonomy and experience have been characterized as incommensurate with a poststructuralist understanding of the subject. What I believe is called for here, echoing the concerns raised by Kathi Weeks and Sonia Kruks in their reformulations of feminist subjectivity, is a resistance to the either/or terms of the modernist/postmodernist debate in which we must choose either a humanist, Cartesian self-knowing subject or a displaced and discursively constituted notion of subjectivity.