Path of most resistance: the films of Laura Mulvey and (the late) Peter Wollen – in tribute

Laura Mulvey and the late Peter Wollen showed that films could be a vehicle for theoretical enquiry every bit as effective as writing.

Peter Wollen obituary: the maven of British film theory

Oliver Fuke

from our June 2016 issue

Shooting Riddles of the Sphinx (1977)

Shooting Riddles of the Sphinx (1977)

Laura Mulvey (born 1941) and Peter Wollen (born 1938) are often rightly described as groundbreaking film theorists. Their influential early texts have proved indispensable for subsequent generations looking for new approaches to making, thinking and writing about film. However, over the last 40 years or so the pair have also been involved in a number of other important activities which have received less attention. These include, but are not limited to, militant political work, pedagogy, writing and theorising about art, curating immensely influential exhibitions, and filmmaking.

Having already begun writing about film from a theoretical perspective, the pair went on to make six films together between 1974 and 1983, the period in which they published some of their most influential essays. Read together, these essays offer a deciphering of, and challenge to, dominant cinematic codes. They also begin to map out alternative strategies for filmmaking, particularly feminist filmmaking – something Mulvey discussed with great clarity in her article Film, Feminism and the Avant-Garde (1978), in which she sketches out an alliance between feminist and avant-garde filmmaking.

Although their films have many of the common features of the ‘essay film’ – chapter structure, citation of other arts, foregrounding and de-naturalisation of technique – Mulvey and Wollen called them ‘theory films’. Through essayistic techniques they addressed the problems they were exploring in their theoretical writing. Freedom from discursive protocol – that is, not having to develop a sustained argument to a conclusion – let them proceed more speculatively or boldly. The pair used film to critique existing images and gazes by countering them with others.

Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons (1974)

Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons (1974)

Their first film together was Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons, a self-funded project made in 1974 while Wollen was teaching at Northwestern University. It comprises five sections, and has much in common with Mulvey’s essay Fears, Fantasies and the Male Unconscious (1973).

In the first section, there is a long, static shot of a mime company doing a performance based on Heinrich von Kleist’s play Penthesilea. The clashing of swords and the wailing of voices provide the soundtrack. In interviews, the pair have said that they were drawn to the psychoanalytic aspects of the play, and wanted to explore whether the Amazons were a feminist myth or a male fantasy myth.

In the second section, Wollen offers an explanation of the previous sequence direct to camera. He also articulates the critical ambitions for the film: “We wanted to make a film without editing. We wanted to call this imaginary world into question.” As this dialogue unfolds, the camera starts to wander off – a little like the mind of a bored student in a lecture – observing the cue cards from which Wollen is reading. The camera strategy and lack of editing were intended, Mulvey later explained, to “negate possible and expected shifts in look… and undercut the looker/looked-at dichotomy”. So there is a coming together of Wollen’s ideas about editing and Mulvey’s work on visual pleasure.

Penthesilea is counter-cinema par excellence. Their second film, Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), to a certain extent moves beyond what Mulvey called “the scorched earth of counter-cinema”. Its seven sections are arranged symmetrically. In the central section, ‘Louise’s story told in thirteen shots’, each shot is a 360-degree pan that foregrounds and denaturalises the camera’s work. At the same time, the motif of the circle, present in both the camera work and Mike Ratledge’s music, meshes neatly with the film’s overarching concerns: the circular nature of problems relating to motherhood in patriarchal society.

Riddles is remarkable for at least three reasons. First, it tries to confront the politics of motherhood on two levels, the concrete and the psychoanalytic. Second, it combines aspects of the traditions Wollen described in his hugely influential essay The Two AvantGardes (1975). Third, there is an attempted rehabilitation of narrative – quite bold in the anti-narrative context of experimental film in England in the 1970s. Narrative and 360-degree pans combine to startling effect.

Amy! (1980)

Amy! (1980)

In the 1980s, Mulvey and Wollen directed four more films together, maintaining a complex relationship to narrative – neither a complete refusal nor complete acceptance. AMY! (1980) explores the image of the heroine, focusing on Amy Johnson. Like Riddles and Penthesilea, it has features of the essay film, while Crystal Gazing (1982) and The Bad Sister (1983) employ an altogether different strategy. Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti (1983) is a documentary related to an exhibition the pair curated at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1982 (the first retrospective of Kahlo’s work outside of Mexico). Looking back, Mulvey and Wollen’s films – made both in collaboration and independently of one another – seem more critical, complex and intriguing than ever.


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