From: Bernard Roddy (email suppressed)
Date: Tue Jan 16 2007 - 06:32:44 PST
This is addressed to the masculine in us, the aggressors and lawmakers:
In her book Indiscretions: Avant-Garde Film, Video, & Feminism (Indiana, 1990) Patricia Mellencamp writes:
“Rather than examining avant-garde texts within historical parameters and debates, many contemporary critics treat this variegated work as monolithic, timeless, eternal. Anger’s citation of “Blue Velvet” in Scorpio Rising in the early 1960s is a very different story from Blue Velvet of the 1980s, which remembers and alludes to the earlier film. Reception itself – including temporality, repetition, legibility, shock, and scandal – was a focus of avant-garde’s project and critique; what is forgotten in many accounts is that reception and spectators are historical rather than forever; context, including a politics of opposition and negation rather than incorporation and contradiction, must be taken into account.” (8)
Mellencamp juxtaposes avant-garde film culture as it was exemplified by Brakhage’s thought and work and in Sitney’s book Visionary Film with the feminist response to it at the time (drawing on texts like Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” published a year later in Screen). Describing her own experience of that period, she says:
“But after continuity style had been peeled away in avant-garde films and narrative conventions analyzed by feminist film theory, another double absence – the erasure of representations of women and the inscription of female subjectivity – came into focus. While contemporary theory came to my rescue with new intellectual models, I spent a great deal of energy discovering that in theory as well I was lacking; how to make theory, like avant-garde, listen to and work for women became an important issue.” (26)
She comments on Brakhage’s book Metaphors on Vision and develops a critique of Sitney’s appraisal of Maya Deren and Meshes of the Afternoon. For Mellencamp the practice of avant-garde film exhibition and reception, the sexual realities on the ground so to speak, is consistent with the feminist psychoanalytic critique of the period, according to which the films construct a male subjectivity anchored in a romanticism allied with Harold Bloom’s conservative cultural criticism. She says that on this conception of avant-garde film, filmmaking expresses the heroic struggle of male individuality in search of origins. In Brakhage’s words, ‘the great works baffle the intellect . . these artists become the great martyrs of aesthetic discomfort’ [quoted from Metaphors on Vision].” (30)
I draw two conclusions: The avant-garde films of the ‘60s and ‘70s need to be assessed from the historical perspective of viewing experience today. And we need to consider a wider variety of masculine subject positions that will facilitate a dialogue amongst ourselves that embraces feminist thought.
Let me illustrate the second point using a ‘70s film by a Japanese filmmaker not usually thought to be avant-garde. The work of Kazuo Hara screened at Facets in December. In Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 (1974) Hara makes several visits to see his ex-wife, Miyuki, and their toddler son, Rei, in Okinawa. The black-and-white film, running about 90 minutes, has a soundtrack recorded during shooting but not usually synchronized with speech. Nearly all the shots are hand-held and locations include inexpensively lit interiors such as small apartments, bars, and strip joints, evening scenes in which Miyuki distributes a flyer amongst bar girls, and a scene on a lake during which Hara’s new girlfriend Kobayashi tells Miyuki that she, Kobayashi, is going to have a child by Hara.
The film is constructed around Miyuki’s views and attitudes, expressed in the course of encounters amongst Japanese bar girls servicing American soldiers, with periodic voiceover and titles to convey the passage of time. Miyuki is an exceptional woman. The film covers a period of several years and opens with Miyuki in a dispute with her lover, a pensive girl named Sugako, who has taken a sexual interest in a black GI. During these opening shots it becomes clear that Miyuki is quite comfortable conducting her private affairs in front of Hara’s camera. The next partner we see her with is Paul, a black GI, whose son she gives birth to later in the film.
Early on in the film Miyuki expresses her desire to raise an aggressive child and dreams of being driven in a truck to an outpost of Japan to give birth for Hara’s camera. The attitudes she articulates are particularly satisfying (and surprising). Late in the film she orchestrates such a childbirth performance, giving birth to Paul’s son in Hara’s cramped apartment with no assistance whatsoever, while Kobayashi holds the microphone and Hara, too distraught to think clearly, shoots out of focus. In this scene Miyuki positions herself on the floor to best display the process of childbirth, and we see her newborn lay between her legs during the period required for the arrival of the placenta as we listen to her explain the process. The child is a girl Miyuki names Yu, and she calls her mother to tell her she delivered the child completely by herself.
The Hara series was billed as “transgressive,” but this seems to minimize the value of what is going on in this film, as if it belonged with expressions of masculine sexual aggression. The subversion here seems to address a different kind of masculine viewer, one who has had to contend with a feminist discourse.
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