by Claudia Gorbman
Cut, no. 29, February 1984, pp. 48, 70
JoAnn Elam's LIE BACK AND ENJOY IT is an absorbing eight-minute dialectical film about the politics of representation. More specifically, it examines the politics of filmic representation of women under patriarchy. Its image track consists of technologically manipulated images of women, and some printed titles. Its soundtrack consists of a dialogue between a Man (a filmmaker) and a Woman (of whom he's going to make a film).
Elam's earlier film RAPE (1975) similarly put together a number of kinds of filmic material: video-transfer, cinema-verite footage, studio-shot footage, handwritten title cards, and on the soundtrack, a conversation among the women who are shown in the video portions. In opposition to a cinema based on illusion, RAPE not only acknowledges but stresses the heterogeneity of filmic discourse. LIE BACK's formal strategy emphasizes diverse kinds of film discourse even further. It sets up a radical disjunction between soundtrack and image, such that we can connect up sound and image only by intellectual work, rather than by fantasy dependent on illusion.
On the image track we see close ups of a woman, and a few almost unintelligible additional shots, all presumably from a pornographic movie. This small inventory of shots is progressively more deformed and distorted. Elam does this by looping, flicker effects, reversing the image (L-R), including sprocket holes and frame lines, running the frames by in a blur (as if the film is slipping in the gate), high-contrast reprinting, superimpositions, and underexposure. All these devices render the image more and more difficult to read, and subsequently point up the image's materiality — its status as strips of printed celluloid which run through machines. The point here is that woman's image in commercial film — no matter, or because of, how much we psychically invest in it — is just that: an investment, a product, and a commodity which functions in a certain economy. Especially by using pornography footage, LIE BACK makes these connections most unequivocally: woman's body, on the screen, is something desired, reified, invaded, and paid for. Thus the Woman's voice in the film says, "… there's no way you can use [sic] a woman without making her into an object and invading her space."
The image track also includes occasional titles. The first three, for example, are interspersed like Burma-Shave signs along an unsettling filmic scenery. These read:
This kind of wordplay, which Elam had already employed in RAPE, makes thought-provoking links between patriarchal sexuality, popular culture and language, and the power relation that exists between the artist and his model.
The soundtrack consists of a dialogue between a man's voice and a woman's voice (let's call them M and W). For those hooked on the pleasure of conventional voyeuristic narrative, this soundtrack seemingly establishes a fictional (diegetic) space, and "characters"; it holds out the promise of rewards of "eavesdroppeurism." As we listen, N and W are sitting in their kitchen. He's a filmmaker and is planning to shoot a "personal" film about her and about their relationship. She has her doubts about the project. Increasingly, though, and almost seamlessly, their conversation passes from a believably fictional (diegetic) mode to a critical one. First slippage: W refers to the tape recorder. (Why, if they're discussing a film he's going to make, is a tape recorder running in their kitchen?) A character thus acknowledges the discourse, the fact of the recording — it's a "mistake" which no self-effacing conventional narrative film would make. Soon after, W asks M, "You think the fact that this is a man's voice and a woman's voice has anything to do with how people are going to relate to it?" The soundtrack makes it difficult to believe in the initial narrative premise any more. Toward the end, their discussion turns on M's claim that in making his movie he'll merely be filming "what's really going on" rather than directing the material's shape in accord with his fantasies. W socratically talks N into a logical corner; M then chuckles, "Uh oh, I think you've got me on this one" We've moved, from two characters — an ideologically innocent filmmaker and a recalcitrant protagonist-to-be — to two film theorists enjoying the interplay of their debating positions. In fact, the film ends when N refers to it (not the film he was going to make, but the one he's in).
The discussion, then, proceeds dialectically. Each voice represents a position. M describes himself as an artist. At first, at least, he claims a sort of innocent neutrality regarding the politics of representation. His art will get at "the truth" via his vision.
I'm just making a film about us. I mean, what does all this culture stuff have to do with that? I mean, that's why I'm making personal films.
Art is subjective expression; it transcends history, politics, culture. But for W, all representations are products of their culture ("in this century," patriarchal culture) and they necessarily are determined by it. Furthermore representation itself is a political issue. A power relationship exists between the person behind the camera and the person being filmed, and anyone denying or ignoring this fact is irresponsible.
The force of Elam's visuals, and W's persuasive arguments in the face of M's innocence, make it abundantly evident that Elam aligns herself with W's position. But at the same time the film works to caution against any hasty dismissal of M. First of all, he sounds like a pretty nice guy. Second, he represents the dominant canon of artistic creation in the modern western world. It's one which most of us have inherited:
I'm an artist. I'm trying to find out the truth about things. to make (films) that will make people feel better and learn something of the world and give them more control over things, and I'm trying to enlarge people's experience with my film's.
It's hard to deny the compelling quality, the "rightness" of his statements, even when the twentieth century has so conclusively vetoed the possibility of such a thing as "the truth." As for W, our sympathies waver when her radi calism carries her to the point of rejecting any attempts to work with the problems of representation in our culture:
I wish that these male filmmakers would stop, you know, putting all these women in their films. I wish that they would just give up … you should have no women in your films.
Finally, when W utters her last words, a strident "I'm right and you're wrong," we feel that Elam has set these characters up to receive equal consideration. Each has virtues and faults. What M lacks in intellectual sophistication, he makes up for in personal charm. W's ideological consciousness-raising is crucial, but her irritably-made challenges threaten to obliterate human interaction from among the possibilities of progressive art. The spectator/auditor having confronted LIE BACK AND ENJOY IT is not left to "lie back" but precisely to judge the positions which the voices have argued.
If you set up a dialectical situation in order to lead people to consider the possible synthesis of ideas presented, ultimately, you have a didactic purpose. Where does Elam’s film lead us? An undergraduate male student paid it a true compliment in declaring that he can no longer look at a woman in a film without thinking about the consequences of the filmmaker's use of her as a person and as a spectacle. LIE BACK encourages analysis, all the more so since its own structure moves from positioning the spectator in a (minimally) voyeuristic stance 71 to a maximally critical one. The film is endowed with remarkable structural and rhetorical lucidity. Everyone woo watches movies with women in them ought to see it.