Closing the Gaps: Researching the Women’s Event at the Edinburgh International Film Festival 1972

Katharine Kamleitner reflects on the process of investigating a key film festival event from feminist history and brings to life its blend of challenge, complexity, opportunity and success.  Her piece ends with an appeal to our members regarding their potential contribution and news of a upcoming event to celebrate this history.

In my PhD project, On Women’s Film Festivals – Histories, Feminisms, Futures, I am researching women’s film festivals and the historical, economical and theoretical contexts that contextualise them. While my focus is mainly on three contemporary festivals in London and Germany, I am also tracing the history and development of the earliest women’s film festivals in the 1970s.  This is where the trouble really started. Film festivals are ephemeral events, by definition designed to be experienced by their attendees in the present. When these festivals first appeared in the 1970s, preserving these events for the future was necessarily of secondary consideration.

In my research on historical women’s film festivals, I have come across many loose ends: “skeletons” of festivals, so to speak, or even just individual “bones” without a trace of more information. Many early women’s film festivals have not been preserved for the future. Often that is the case, because these events were community-driven, organised on shoe-string budgets by volunteers, barely acknowledged by the mainstream press and rarely subject of academic research. Therefore, exploring women’s film festivals from that era, even those that made substantial impact at the time and subsequently, has posed significant methodological challenges during this project.

One of the earliest women’s film festivals was The Women’s Event [i] which took place at the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) in 1972. It was the first festival in the UK and in Europe that focused entirely on the work of female filmmakers and was co-organised by Laura Mulvey, Lynda Myles and Claire Johnston. It stood out from other women’s film festivals at the time because it was part of a much larger and well-established festival. Since 1968, EIFF had established and fostered radical programming structures which challenged its attendees and local audiences to engage intellectually with cinema.[ii] For the organisers of the Women’s Event this posed an ideal opportunity to create a successful event within the supportive framework of the progressive traditions of EIFF.

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 The Women’s Film Event at the Edinburgh Film Festival 1972.  © EIFF. Retrieved from The Scottish Sun

The Women’s Event was indeed successful and attracted local to watch and discuss the works of female directors. However, despite this, it seems to have been very poorly documented even at the time. Contemporaneous publications about the Edinburgh International Film Festival and the Edinburgh Festivals, organisations dominated by male critics, barely mention The Women’s Event despite its ground-breaking novelty. Even when they do, the authors hardly go into further detail than naming the organisers and a few of the films screened in the programme.

So instead of finding out more about the event via library research, I turned to other methods. First, I scheduled interviews with Laura Mulvey and Lynda Myles, who told me more about their intentions with the festival, their relationship to EIFF and the kind of atmosphere the event had created. They also supplied me with a full list of films that were screened as part of the festival, which included historical works like Leni Riefenstahl’s Das blaue Licht (1932) and Leontine Sagan’s Mädchen in Uniform (1931) as well as newer works such as Nelly Kaplan’s La fiancée du pirate (1969) and Jane Arden’s The Other Side of the Underneath (1972).

However, given that the event lies over 40 years in the past, there were naturally details about the festival that neither Mulvey nor Myles could remember. And so, I went into the archives to try to fill in the gaps. Tracking down the festival catalogue was easy, and gave me access to an introductory text penned by the organisers and film synopses for all screenings. I even managed to find some of the films from the list, access DVDs and screeners, and read contemporary reviews in feminist film magazines such as Frauen und Film (Germany) or Women & Film (US). This helped me to understand that the 1970s British feminist film movement seemed to be predominantly interested in fictional cinema forms,  experimenting with narratives as well as aesthetics.

In the course of my investigations, one artefact has proved to be very intriguing but, up to now, very elusive. A film about The Women’s Event was commissioned by BBC2 for a late night cultural television programme, and produced by some of the women attending the festival. Since it was funded with public money, I was convinced I would be able to find this film and followed leads to the BBC Written Archives in London, the BFI Archive, the National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image Archive and of course the archive of the film festival itself – and found nothing. The film, potentially capturing images from the event’s lively discussions and networking events, seems to be lost forever. I would be delighted if anyone, though, could suggest new places to look.

This applies to information about the event more generally. I know which films were screened and that they were accompanied by discussions; however, there are many areas where information is missing. In reconstituting this event, as part of our wider women’s film history, I am still searching for details of  who attended and what topics the debates evolved around. If this has stirred up a personal memory, however insignificant it might appear, I would be very pleased to hear from you.

To celebrate this event and to recover and reassert its importance now– not least as part of our more conscious future preservation of similar – I am co-organising a screening of films from The Women’s Event.

Together with Lauren Clarke I run Femspectives, a feminist film festival in Glasgow. Our launch event Femspectives presents: 46 Years in the Future – Women’s Film Festivals, then and now will take place on 5 May 2018 at Glasgow Women’s Library from 12.30 to 5pm as part of the Radical Film Network Festival 18-68-18. We will re-visit two feature films from the original programme and contextualise them anew in our discussion sessions after each screening. The event will be open to the public and free to attend (booking required).

If you have attended the Women’s Event at EIFF in 1972 and have a memory you would like to share with me, please contact me at k.kamleitner.1@research.gla.ac.uk.

Katharina Kamleitner is a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow and co-organises Femspectives, a new feminist film series in Glasgow. Her research project examines women’s film festivals from historical, economical and feminist/political points of view and addresses the purpose of these events and their historical significance for film history.

[i] The event was also referred to as The Women’s Film Festival within the EIFF 1972 brochure; however, The Women’s Event is the more consistently employed and, therefore, the term adopted here.

[ii] For example, Peter Stanfield has discussed this trend at EIFF in: Stanfield, Peter: ‘Notes Toward a History of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, 1969-77.’ Film International 34 (2008), pp. 63-71.

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 “Is This my Life?” Part Two: Discovering Anne Charlotte Robertson through the Harvard Film Archive

Brett Kashmere continues his riveting account of the life and work of Anne Charlotte Robertson.  Part One summarised the results of his retrospective study, the character of the person and the work.  Now, in Part Two, he considers further the steps involved in retrospective archival work and the challenges facing exhibition of fragile material. Finally, he reflects on the way in which historical study can demand revised perspectives on established theoretical or methodological frameworks.

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Figures 3 and 4. Anne Charlotte Robertson, cover and first page of school report titled, “Is This my Life?” From Anne Charlotte Robertson Collection, Harvard Film Archive, Harvard University, box CC 13R24, “Papers – Diary 1961-1968.” Photos: Brett Kashmere.

In 2012, following Robertson’s passing, the artist’s films, audiotapes, photographs, and some papers, including the rights, were bequeathed to Harvard Film Archive (HFA). The gift was arranged through the help of Robertson’s friend and small gauge film preservationist Toni Treadway, of Brodsky & Treadway.[i] This donation has numerous relevancies to media historians. For one, Robertson’s films are not available through any other source. Nor are they very well known. Given the brittleness and camera-original singularity of Super 8 reversal, and the multi-reel, multi-system nature of Robertson’s projects, which combined sound-on-film, sound-on-tape, and live improvised narration, these films present an unusual set of complications for programmers, which has contributed to their disappearance from public view. Fortunately, the HFA is currently undertaking a project to preserve the entirety of Robertson’s work to both 16mm film and digital formats. Approximately half of her most renowned (if only read about or partially seen) film, Five Year Diary has now been digitized but work remains to be done with the accompanying audio for some reels. According to Harvard’s Film Conservator Liz Coffey, these films should be ready by May 2018. The date of completion for the remainder of the Diary’s restoration is not yet known. Most of Robertson’s standalone shorter works, numbering more than 30, have been digitized at this point. Many of these films and parts of the Diary have begun screening again, including at the 2015 Viennale, 2015 Rotterdam, and 2017 Toronto International Film Festivals, and Documenta 14.

A unique part of HFA’s Robertson collection is the extensive written materials contained within, including hand- and typewritten diaries that trace back to Robertson’s childhood.[ii] The diaries, organized chronologically into binders by the artist, provide countless new avenues and potential insights into Robertson’s development and process as a writer, photographer, and filmmaker; and map her transition from (private) diary writing to (public) personal documentary filmmaking. What new understandings might arise about Robertson’s transition from writing into filmmaking and the development of her unique diary film style, as well as the social and cultural forces and discourses that helped shape it, through a careful reading of these and other papers? Although the question exceeds the scope of this article my hope is that it animates future research.

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Figure 5. Handmade MassArt screening flier. From Harvard Film Archive, Anne Charlotte Robertson Collection.

Drawing Conclusions

Considering the Diary’s cultural formation, its modes of authorship and performance, and its expanded multi-media configuration in relation to its exhibition and reception, my analysis repositions Robertson’s work as an essential contribution to the histories of feminist media and experimental film. It is one that interrogates and can still trouble traditional gender conventions and mainstream representations of femininity and is thus inextricable from the greater movement of challenge enacted by second wave feminism. Her story is missing from this history. Similarly, her daily filmmaking practice provided a bold revision of the diary form. Her work is missing from this history as well.

To better recognize and appreciate Robertson’s unique contributions, I propose a more permeable, interdisciplinary framework. Five Year Diary’s forms and content, for instance, suggest relationships to the psychological, sexually charged animation of Mary Beams, Lisa Crafts, and Suzan Pitt,[iii] all of whom worked at Harvard in the 1970s, rather than with male personal documentarists like Ed Pincus and Ross McElwee. The fact that Robertson hasn’t been addressed alongside any of them in histories of experimental media and first-person cinema reveals a lack of imagination in thinking across categories. Bracketing animation from live action film, video, and performance, or separating avant-garde from documentary, siloes and thereby diminishes the thematic and conceptual cross-genre resonances between these different modes of coterminous creative practice. This was especially harmful for those working outside the major centers at the time, where critical attention was more limited.

Finally, with respect to exhibition: Robertson preferred that Diary be presented in a continuous marathon fashion, accompanied by improvised narration, performance, sound on tape, and furniture and other items from her home, such as photo albums and favorite books. As the project grew in length this created obvious logistical challenges; limiting the venues it could be screened at. “Complete” versions have rarely been shown and early video transfers of select reels were of lackluster quality. Balancing access and screening opportunities against care for her fragile camera original material, and without the financial means to create prints or pristine transfers made distribution challenging and was a barrier to art world acceptance. Throughout her lifetime, Robertson self-distributed her films out of necessity, which partially explains why her work hasn’t been collected by museums. The nature of her chosen medium in combination with environmental considerations and requirements limited how and how often Robertson’s work would be seen. When you consider the content – “super-confrontational Super 8 psychodramas… borderline funny…” – the material hurdles made it easier for cultural influencers like curators and critics to bypass the work entirely.

Robertson’s exclusion from a book focused on and around personal documentary and ethnographic filmmaking in Boston and Cambridge, near to where she grew up, studied, and worked for most of her life, is symbolic of how small-gauge, women, and feminist filmmakers are regularly neglected or footnoted. The paucity of writing on Robertson’s work provokes many questions, not least a failure to find a context due to its multi-faceted quality: feminist, avant-garde and personal. Did it fail to satisfy ‘purist’ perspectives of each category? And what are the consequences of her omission from conventional film histories? Robertson’s own description of her Super 8 opus elucidates some of the factors that have dictated its absence while at the same time identifying the lack it potentially fulfills:

I am a 50-year-old woman, single, with a vow to poverty. The title Five Year Diary refers to the little blank books with locks and keys, that allow only a few lines to each day’s notation; the audience is invited to be my brother and sister, and see what a life can yield. My present and future hope is to leave a full record of a woman in the 20th century.[iv]

This is Part Two of Brett Kashmere’s contribution on Anne Charlotte Robertson: Part One can be found here. 

Brett Kashmere is a media artist, historian, and curator living in Oakland, California. His writing on experimental cinema, moving image art, and alternative film exhibition has appeared in Millennium Film Journal, MIRAJ, The Canadian Journal of Film Studies, Senses of Cinema, The Brooklyn Rail, The Films of Jack Chambers, and Carolee Schneemann: Unforgivable. Kashmere is currently a doctoral student in Film + Digital Media at University of California, Santa Cruz. He is also the founding editor of INCITE: Journal of Experimental Media.

Acknowledgments

Special thanks to Jeremy Rossen for his assistance in researching this article, and to Yulia Gilichinskaya, Rona Murray, Elana Santana, Dorothy R. Santos, and Shelley Stamp for their helpful comments and suggestions.

[i]  A few of the films, by stipulation of Robertson’s will, are not available for viewing until 2023.

[ii] Although the papers have not been processed yet, they’re currently available to Harvard faculty, students, and outside researchers for on-site consultation. The papers and photographs constitute 19 boxes of material.

[iii] Thanks to Herb Shellenberger for bringing this point to my attention.

[iv] Anne Charlotte Robertson, “Five Year Diary,” artistic statement, in The Five Year Diary: Anne Charlotte Robertson, edited by Benjamin Cook and Barbara Rodriguez-Munoz (London: LUX, 2014), 18.

‘Is This my Life?’: Part One: Public Intimacy in the Work of Anne Charlotte Robertson

In this blog, Brett Kashmere shares his research regarding a neglected figure of 1970s and 1980s filmmaking, Anne Charlotte Robertson.  Drawing directly on the archive of her work and personal papers now housed at Harvard University, this piece gives an insight into the unique quality of her work and examines the issues that arise in undertaking retrospective study.  This is Part One of a two-part piece, with Part Two due for publication in mid-March.

 

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Figure 1. Frame enlargements from Five Year Diary. From Anne Charlotte Robertson Collection, Harvard Film Archive, Harvard University.

Anne Charlotte Robertson (b. March 27, 1949; d. September 15, 2012) was a small-gauge American filmmaker whose intensely intimate, serialized Super 8 diaries have been neglected in conventional histories of both feminist filmmaking and experimental filmmaking – including feminist histories and critiques of experimental film and video. Robertson’s 38-hour Five Year Diary (‘Diary’) (1981-1997)[i], self-shot on a near-daily basis across two decades, gave image and voice to what had largely gone unseen and unheard in dominant culture: a methodical, unromanticized chronicle of domestic life, in sympathy if not in direct contact with 1970s feminist art or film projects.  Driven by an impulse to create a record of her own life for public display, Robertson developed her filmmaking out of her intensely personal diary writing. ‘When I began the diary, I bought five rolls of film. I thought I’d film myself, one scene every day, moving around my apartment. […] Five rolls of film – it wasn’t enough.’[ii]  Shot mainly in the home, this monumental oeuvre detailed private thoughts and desires. Like many feminist artists of this period, Robertson rigorously turned her lens (and audio recorder) on herself and transformed the individualized routines and practices of daily life (gardening, cooking, eating, exercising, watching TV, talking on the phone, and so on) into an epic, open-ended personal, psychical drama. However, Robertson’s testimony contains aspects unique to her and her experience.

‘All of life is sufficing.’

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Figure 2. Anne Charlotte Robertson, diary note, circa 1967. From Anne Charlotte Robertson Collection, Harvard Film Archive, Harvard University, box CC 13R24, “Papers – Diary 1961-1968.” Photo: Brett Kashmere.

As her written diaries make clear, Robertson’s artistic voice first found expression through a committed, inwardly-focused writing practice that she later adapted and transposed to a prolific, long-form, performative Super 8 mode. Reviewing these papers, held at Harvard University, one immediately discovers an avid and precocious diarist-poet. The earliest entry, from December 1960, is an autobiographical narrative titled ‘Is This my Life?,’ composed when Robertson was 11 years old. The inventive, self-analytical, ambidextrous writing, encompassing T.V. scripts, poetry, lists, plays, reports, and annotated ephemera, in addition to daily personal diary keeping, represents a major, complex creative endeavor in parallel to her more publicly-facing film production.

In between, she studied still photography and self-portraiture while achieving a BA in Art and Psychology from University of Massachusetts, Boston. At the encouragement of the Boston filmmaker, activist, and professor Saul Levine, Robertson turned to Super 8 film in 1976. Under Levine’s tutelage, she completed an MFA in Filmmaking from the Massachusetts College of Art in 1979. Over the course of her life, Robertson produced an enormous body of work in the Super 8 and Super 8 sound formats, constituting one of the major achievements of both small gauge cinema and personal documentary. The irony is that her choice of medium – Super 8 reversal, which was cheaper and less burdensome than 16mm and more immediate, was also more precarious because of the prohibitive duplication costs, which has made the work difficult to access and show in the era of digital projection. This fact of format has not, however, prevented other 8mm filmmakers from receiving acclaim, attention, and ample screening opportunities, including Robertson’s former professor, Levine, their Boston contemporaries Joe Gibbons and Luther Price, Stan Brakhage (for his Songs (1964-9)) and many others. Even this so-called “home movie” format, which was heavily marketed to female consumers, remained a masculine prerogative within the domain of artistic production.

As a female Super 8 diarist toiling away in small-town Framington, Massachusetts in the mid-1970s and ‘80s, Robertson belonged to no contemporary flashpoint or avant-garde zeitgeist. Her Diary was distinct from the more critical and polemic feminist video art that was being made at the time by Martha Rosler, Eleanor Antin, Joan Jonas, and others; as well as the more formally poetic and tightly crafted 16mm work of Carolee Schneemann,[iii]  Shirley Clarke, Marjorie Keller, and Marie Menken, and the conceptually distilled films of Joyce Wieland. Nor did Robertson’s work have a punk edge or transgressive flair common amongst small-gauge underground filmmakers like Vivienne Dick and Beth B. In contrast, Robertson’s films were direct, observational, self-absorbed, and minimally worked upon past the point of shooting. She performed all of the roles: cinematography, lighting, editing, sound recording, and was the primary on-screen subject. As Robertson explained about her process: ‘I just do assembly editing. Everything I take [shoot] is in the film.’ A summary of Reel 3, for instance, involved the cooking of tempeh and meal prep, the cleaning of dishes, a long phone call, an in-camera edited montage of grocery store produce, and a stop-motion sequence of Robertson weaving on a loom. “I thought that with the diary it would be great if everything was included, if I left overexposed or underexposed film in.”[iv]

Diary’s domestic nature, its extensive performance of “women’s work” and Robertson’s quest for a husband perhaps made the project easy to dismiss at a time when transforming social attitudes towards gender roles and breaking the glass ceiling were major points of focus. My work to date suggests a reading of Robertson’s Diary as not quite feminist enough (in the context of 70s gender politics), or formally adventurous enough (in the realm of avant-garde film). Overall, her work existed at the interstice of feminist politics and feminist art but went unclaimed by either. Another aspect of Robertson’s work that has played a role in its being overlooked or deliberately ignored is the way in which it simultaneously foregrounds the sexist attitudes, gender policing, and dominant heterosexual norms of its time. Many of these attitudes and conventions are deeply internalized in her pre-film writing. Body image, in particular being thin, is an ongoing concern throughout her diaries, which is later externalized and reproduced in Five Year Diary and other projects. Blurring the lines between art and life, private and public, fiction and documentary, Robertson’s films evince a multi-layered autobiographical portrait that is deeply interlaced with the concerns of second wave feminism while also bowing at times to certain gender expectations and social norms. Much of her diary practice (both film and writing) dealt directly and painfully with issues related to diet, mental health (including clinical depression and bipolar disorder), sexual desire and frustration, and self-worth. In the late-1990s she described her films diaries as

[…] a materialization of the present, which is a storehouse. I used to think of them in terms of showing them to a man who would say to me, ‘What have you been doing all your life’ and then I’d show them to him. It would be like a trousseau you know, like a home movie made up ahead of time. So, in other words, I represent myself with them. They’re my ‘true-so.’[v]

At its very earliest stages, Diary appears shaped by Robertson’s desire to please her father by working on film in a narrative form. As she explains: “Sometime in late November, 1981, my father told me to tell a story. I didn’t really have a story to tell, except to expand on my day-to-day life inside my apartment.”[vi] What emerges is the way that her project appears continuously governed by a desire to please a male viewer, whether it be her father, or a future (imagined) husband. Several chapters of the project are devoted to her celebrity crush with the British film and TV actor Tom Baker, who played the title character of the BBC series Doctor Who for seven years.[vii] Robertson’s obsession seems largely motivated by the idea of an imagined male viewer.

Robertson: Missing from Scholarship

Remarkably, Robertson’s work has also been omitted from scholarship on autobiographical documentary and auto-ethnographic filmmaking. A 2013 publication on ethnographic cinema and personal documentary in the Cambridge and Boston areas determined that Robertson, despite being a dedicated observer of lived experience from the specific area covered by the book, fell outside its parameters because her work was avant-garde. As the author Scott MacDonald writes: ‘with one important exception [Alfred Guzzetti], I say almost nothing about avant-garde cinema… even when filmmakers have had some connection with Cambridge, including, for example Radcliffe graduate Abigail Child” and “prolific diarist, Anne Charlotte Robertson.’[viii]  Yet her work is seldom referenced in those studies and periodicals devoted to experimental film history and criticism either.

Why has Robertson been excepted from these intersecting histories? Her films screened routinely (if infrequently in their original format) during her lifetime, in venues ranging from universities and festivals dedicated to Super 8 all the way to New York’s Museum of the Moving Image (in 1988’s Independent America: New Film, 1978-1988) and the Museum of Modern Art (in 1998’s Big as Life: An American History of 8mm Films). She was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in Filmmaking in 2001. Her name remains familiar, echoing through many traditions of practice, including Super 8, feminist, diary, and first-person cinemas. Yet she is almost nowhere to be found in the film literature. It is tempting to speculate on a root cause related to gender bias; the work being deemed too quotidian, too ordinary; its format too domestic and lacking a theoretical perspective. However, Diary’s critical reception also provides a window onto wider, contextual concerns. For example, how feminist art and film were being defined and appraised during the latter stages of the second wave feminist era in America; the marginalized status of Super 8 as a creative medium; and the representability of mental illness in the media cultures of that time. Robertson’s psychological breakdowns are detailed throughout the work, including her numerous hospitalizations, and she often described her filmmaking as a form of self-therapy. “When I got to the five-year mark in 1986,” she noted, ‘I kept going because, basically, I didn’t have a happy ending for my movie.’[ix]

This is Part One of Brett Kashmere’s contribution on Anne Charlotte Robertson: Part Two will follow as our next publication. 

Brett Kashmere is a media artist, historian, and curator living in Oakland, California. His writing on experimental cinema, moving image art, and alternative film exhibition has appeared in Millennium Film Journal, MIRAJ, The Canadian Journal of Film Studies, Senses of Cinema, The Brooklyn Rail, The Films of Jack Chambers, and Carolee Schneemann: Unforgivable. Kashmere is currently a doctoral student in Film + Digital Media at University of California, Santa Cruz. He is also the founding editor of INCITE: Journal of Experimental Media.

[i] Robertson began filming Five Year Diary on November 3, 1981. The final version consists of 84 reels, each approximately 27 minutes in length.
[ii] Quoted in Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 2: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 208.
[iii] Schneemann’s autobiographical, mutable double-projection Super 8 film Kitch’s Last Meal (1973-76, with sound on cassette) is a notable exception, and was cited by Robertson as an inspiration for the Five Year Diary.
[iv] Quoted in Scott McDonald, A Critical Cinema 2, 213.
[v] Quoted in Donna Cameron, “Pieces of Eight: Interviews with 8mm Filmmakers,” in Big as Life: An American History of 8mm Films (New York and San Francisco: Museum of Modern Art and San Francisco Cinematheque, 1998), 67.
[vi] Quoted in Scott McDonald, A Critical Cinema 2, 208.
[vii] Including reels 33 (“A Crush on Doctor Who,” 1982), 34 (“Doctor Who Convention,” 1983), 61 (“More Doctor Who,” 1988), 67 (“So Much Doctor Who” (1989), 68 (“Plenty of Doctor Who,” 1989), and 69 (“Guess Who and Breakdowns,” 1989).
[viii] Scott MacDonald, American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 15. Every chapter in MacDonald’s book is centered around a white male filmmaker (with one about a mother-son team and another about “other approaches,” which is also nearly all white male filmmakers). MacDonald has written about Robertson’s work elsewhere, but his decision to exclude Robertson from a consideration of personal documentary because of its avant-gardism is still confounding.

[ix] Quoted in Glen Collins, “Slices of Life in a ‘Five Year Diary,’” The New York Times, October 20, 1988.

Conference Report: Women in The American New Wave: A Retrospective

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Retrospectives: Another opportunity to rethink women’s contribution?

In this week’s contribution, Fjoralba Miraka reflects on a conference at Bangor University on The American New Wave.  Out of a wide-ranging event, she focusses on key aspects in relation to women and film history, not least in some challenges to the dominance of the prevailing idea of the New Hollywood male auteur. Her report provides further evidence for WFTHN readers of how looking back continues to provide vital material for reassessment and moving forwards.

The American New Wave: A Retrospective: School of Creative Studies and Media, College of Arts and Humanities: Bangor University, 4-6 July 2017

The American New Wave or New Hollywood cinema, a period of American cinema understood as spanning the late 1960s through the 1970s, remains a rich era of film research for current generations of cinephiles and film scholars. This July it was again the object of inquiry at a conference organised by Bangor University which invited and welcomed an international group of scholars to celebrate the period’s legacies and re-examine its significance. Panels discussed a variety of aspects of New Hollywood, from questions of authorship, histories and inheritances to analyses revisiting key films, stars, genres and production companies. All three days featured a special keynote address and ended with the screenings of key films from that era: Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), and Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979).

Women’s contributions featured in various ways during the conference. Of particular interest was the panel on women practitioners, which featured a presentation by Aaron Hunter[1] on ‘Polly Platt’s New Hollywood Aesthetic’ and a second presentation by Aimee Mollaghan on ‘Barbara Loden’s Influence on the Contemporary American Female Road Movie’. Both presentations argued convincingly for the inherent sexism of traditional auteurist criticism and illustrated the ways in which it has invariably disregarded and overlooked the work of women both in front of and behind the camera. Hunter’s discussion about production designer Polly Platt’s aesthetics of realism and hyper-realism present in Peter Bogdanovich’s films offered the designer the creative credit she has usually been denied. Mollaghan’s discussion of Barbara Loden’s road movie Wanda (1970) challenged our perceptions of gender and genre by examining how the metaphoric use of landscape in the film reconstituted gender representations in relation to images of open space. My own presentation focused on the under-explored function of melodrama in the New Hollywood films, taking Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) as an example of the way in which the woman in this era is typically displaced from the central position she occupied in the melodramas of Classical Hollywood.

The function of melodrama featured elsewhere in relation to male film directors. Linda Williams focused on the wonder boy of New Hollywood, Steven Spielberg, considering the framing influence of melodrama in his films, through recurrence of childhood experience, prominent in Spielberg’s films. She elaborated on the function of nostalgia and sentimentality, which hold a significant place in Spielberg’s melodramas, and the wonderful workings of his music which produce ‘the bodily fluids of melodrama’, tears.

The second pair of panels offered explorations of alternative perspectives which challenged the dominance of the film auteur, bringing to our attention the creative contributions of scriptwriters, sound designers and film editors. Oliver Gruner, Frederick Wasser, and Warren Buckland discussed the contribution of scriptwriter Waldo Salt, sound designer Walter Murch and film editors Sam O’Steen, Dede Allen, and Ralph Rosenblum respectively, making the case for the valuable contributions of film practitioners other than the director. Their presentations were an attempt to pay tribute both to the collaborative nature of the filmmaking experience itself and the hidden figures of the industry and its history. Dede Allen’s editing work on Bonnie and Clyde was presented as typical of the period’s innovation and experimentation with stylistic choices, and reflected on how these choices functioned as cultural commentary. Thanks to her pioneering contribution to the aesthetics of key films of the era, Buckland argued convincingly that Allen is equally deserving of the title ‘auteur’. Returning to the director role, Jimmy Hay related River of Grass director Kelly Reichardt’s ‘cinema of weariness’ to New Hollywood; a cinema of passive, muted characters with restricted movements, and stylistically very close to the European film sensibility of long takes and exterior places.

At a point at which discussion of the gender imbalances of much conference activity has become an increasingly pressing conversation in academia, the conspicuously limited number of women presenters at the event, as well as the limited number of presentations focusing on women actively involved in film during the Hollywood Renaissance era, was striking. Some interesting, illustrative numbers were: only 1 out of the 4 keynote speakers was a woman; only 6 out of the 37 presenters were women (myself included); only 4 out of all 37 presentations involved discussions about women in New Hollywood (those were sound editor Dede Allen, designer Polly Platt, directors Barbara Loden, and Kelly Reichardt); all three screenings were films directed by men.  This offers the chance to think about possible reasons behind this imbalance in numbers. Is it indicative of a limited presence of women active during that period in film production? Could it indicate a perception of New Hollywood as male topic or terrain in the approaches adopted in film history and criticism? Can we, positively, perceive these questions as a spur to engage in a determined manner, to reassess film history and work towards a more inclusive canon? In that respect, the Women and New Hollywood conference organised by Maynooth University for May 2018 comes at the right moment to offer fresh, challenging, and inspirational perspectives on the innovative and influential contributions of women whose labour has been overlooked, dismissed, or simply erased from critical perspectives.

In a subsequent discussion, Yannis Tzioumakis (University of Liverpool) reflected upon the ongoing passion scholars show towards the films of that period and expressed aims of interest to Women’s Film and Television History Network. In recent scholarship in this area, he commented that ‘there has been a strong emphasis on looking beyond a director-centred or auteurist cinema that has tended to dominate existing studies and a focus instead on such issues as the role of other collaborators, the distinction between myth and fact, an examination of little-seen films and little-discussed companies and indeed an emphasis on the ways in which we can potentially reassess the period with the help of these new perspectives and focal points. For me, all these developments are very positive and are bound to produce new and exciting work on the topic. And I think female scholarship/scholarship on women and the Hollywood Renaissance can play a vital part in this project.’ As Robert Kolker also reflected: ‘it was especially gratifying to meet so many young scholars. Their passion for the field proves not only the lasting value of American films of the 1960s and 70s, but also the health of cinema studies.’

The conference was hosted and organised by academics and staff from the School of Creative Studies and Media which is part of the College of Arts and Humanities at Bangor University. We extend, thus, our warm thanks to Bangor University and to its lead organizers Gregory Frame and Nathan Abrams, for offering the necessary space for such concerns to be raised and addressed.

For the conference programme, see here http://americannewwave.bangor.ac.uk/

Fjoralba Miraka is a Ph.D student at Roehampton University and teaching associate, with a research focus on the postclassical melodramatic imagination in the Hollywood Renaissance period. She is currently working on a chapter for publication concerning the male melodramas of Scorsese’s early films. She is also writing an entry on the history of Feminist Film Theory for the first Encyclopaedia of Gender, Media and Communication, scheduled for publication in 2019, as part of the ICA series of the Sub-disciplinary Encyclopaedias of Communication.

[1] Aaron Hunter is on a two-year postdoctoral fellowship which focuses on Women and New Hollywood, based at Maynooth University, Department of Media Studies and sponsored by the Irish Research Council. Details about their forthcoming 2018 conference on ‘Women in New Hollywood’ are available on the website

 

Glamour, Nostalgia and Film Memory: Contemporary Popular Culture and the Femme Fatale

In this week’s blog, Katherine Farrimond writes from a very contemporary perspective on the enduring cinematic figure of the femme fatale. Further to the publication of her monograph, she considers how recent examples in film and television create different dialogues between past and present.

In my book, The Contemporary Femme Fatale: Gender, Genre and American Cinema, I was keen to expand research on the figure beyond the erotic noir thrillers of the 1980s and 1990s that have been so central to the majority of research on the femme fatale in the post-studio era. Such films have been interrogated in terms of their representation of the dangers of professional women, their complicity with backlash discourses against second wave feminism, their controversial representations of violent women, and their updating of the classical noir narratives that have been central to foundational work in feminist film studies. Rather than thinking about the value and limits of the femme fatale per se for feminism (a tempting but irresolvable debate), I found it more productive to think through the details of those representations. Therefore, I moved away from theoretical narratives of backlash and sought to address the representation of teenagers as femme fatale figures in an era of ‘girl culture’, by using bisexuality to frame my readings of neo noir and by re-reading science fiction films’ use of the femme fatale in its hybrid human/alien bodies.

What I was most taken with, however, was the constant return to film history, or at least, film memory, in representations of the femme fatale over the past quarter-century. As James Naremore argues in More Than Night (1998), contemporary noir films are often “about” their noir look. This attention to aesthetics is uniquely tied up with nostalgic fantasies of glamour, femininity and power when it comes to the femme fatale. This is most obvious in retro noir films set in the 1940s or 50s, or drawing on the iconography of classic noir. Films like LA Confidential (1997), Lonely Hearts (2006) and Gangster Squad (2013) lean heavily on the aesthetics of the femme fatale in their promotional materials, despite being reluctant to follow through on their initial promise by creating truly dangerous femme fatale characters. Exploring the specific ways that the cinematic memory of the femme fatale has been put to work as a useable myth complicates attempts to claim the figure as being intrinsically feminist or antithetical to feminism. The aesthetics of the tough, glamorous retro femme fatale have been deployed in wildly divergent ways. Emma Stone’s passive moll in Gangster Squad is horribly at odds with the hard glitter of her appearance, whereas Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014) provides Eva Green (who studied Barbara Stanwyck’s noir performances in preparation for the role) an unlikely opportunity to fulfil the role of femme fatale with excess and camp abandon. Thus, the figure’s nostalgic glamour is often used simply as an appealing and marketable surface, but it also presents an opportunity to revisit and adapt the energetic femininity of the classic noir femme fatale.

Figure 1: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Season 3, Episode 1) ‘from a victim to a woman scorned.’ © Netflix.

A timely example of this can be found in the opening of the new season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2017), a series characterised by its knowing deployment of genre and popular culture tropes and clichés.  Having been left at the altar, the titular character Rebecca Bunch pulls herself out of her hotel room depression with a trip to the shops to transform ‘from a victim to a woman scorned’. This makeover includes dark nail varnish, dark hair dye, a tight white dress cut in a retro style, and most tellingly, DVD copies of Fatal Attraction (1987) and Basic Instinct (1992). She returns to her workplace to enact an elaborate, exaggerated and self-referential performance of sultry femininity. As she informs the friend who interrupts the routine, ‘Paula, I’m trying to do a thing!’ Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s ‘doing’ of the femme fatale allows for a clear explication of both the aesthetics of the figure and some of her more violent and vengeful incarnations in film history. The femme fatale becomes a ‘thing’ reducible to a palette of aesthetic choices, but is also presented as an available and malleable fantasy. The cinematic memory of the femme fatale is employed as a transitional myth, used to shift from one way of being to another. Rebecca’s ‘doing’ of the femme fatale provides her with a sense of control, and a reprieve from the humiliation of her circumstances, even as the series’ narrative presents the femme fatale as a comically unlikely and unsustainable fantasy.

Figure 2: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Season 3, Episode 1) ‘My hair is dark so I look evil, but I’m wearing white which is ironic.’ © Netflix.

The femme fatale is a consumable and compelling archetype that gestures back to Hollywood history in fascinating ways, and demonstrates the complex power of cinematic nostalgia. The looking back facilitated by the femme fatale does not simply represent a desire to return to how things once were, but rather invites a reconsideration of the pull of past femininities, and provides an opportunity not for wholesale recreation, but for playfulness and transformation.

Katherine Farrimond is Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex. Her research explores gender and genre in contemporary popular culture with particular focus on the femme fatale, mediated constructions of virginity, and the politics of nostalgia. Her monograph, The Contemporary Femme Fatale was published with Routledge in 2017, and she has published numerous articles and book chapters on representations of girlhood, femininity, sexuality and the uses of the past in popular culture. She is book reviews editor for Feminist Theory Journal and co-editor of SEQUENCE.