Department of Theatre and Film
From the Founding Editor:
The fall 2008 issue of The Projector reflects our new/current editorial policies, for while the journal began as a venue for solicited undergraduate writing, over time it has become a referred publication on film, media, and culture with submissions of critical and creative work from emerging and established scholars and practitioners.
On this occasion of formalizing the transition to a peer review model, it seems worth noting that, despite the expanded scope and presence of digital media and cinema scholarship’s increased emphasis on considering films in light of larger cultural practices, “the projector,” the title chosen by film major and now critic James Eldred, could be as salient today as when the first issue of the journal appeared on the website of the BGSU Department of Theatre and Film in 2001.
While the term suggests different connotations at different times, the “Projector” poems by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) published in the 1920s in the British journal Close Up might be called upon to highlight certain underlying continuities; for as Susan McCabe points out, H.D.’s poems suggest that it’s the projection of moving images that makes it possible for bodies to reassert their ghostly presence and for audiences to “inhabit a hybrid consciousness – hypnotized and yet awake.”
Thus, along with celluloid’s much-discussed disappearance, and transitions from film projection to video projection, from front screen to rear screen projection, and from psychoanalytic to cultural models for analyses of human “projection,” cinematic tropes are bound into digital media (from the various “film stock” filters in video cameras to the principle of montage that structures hyperlinks) and, as the four articles in this issue demonstrate, reception studies and industry studies of film still reckon with responses to screen images.
Taking up questions of representation and political economy, the articles on Women and American Independent Film in this issue of The Projector offer productive insights into the business practices and cultural conventions surrounding and shaping films and their reception. As I read them, the essays suggest that while films might make it possible for audiences to “inhabit a hybrid consciousness – hypnotized and yet awake,” discursive and material practices in film are often informed by the decisions of people who are awake yet hypnotized by dominant socio-economic structures.
For more than a fragment of information about H.D.’s reflections on projected images, see: H. D.: Collected Poems 1912-1944 (ed. Louis L. Martz, 1983); Close Up 1927-1933: Cinema and Modernism (eds. James Donald, Anne Friedberg, Laura Marcus, 1998); Embodying Beauty(Malin Pereira, 2000); H.D. and the Image (Rachel Conner, 2004); and Cinematic Modernism (Susan McCabe, 2005).
H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)
Poet, Filmmaker, Film Theorist
Editor’s Introduction: Women and American Independent Film
In her article “Conceptions of Cool in American Society,” Carolyn Sweet finds what might appear to be an unexpected reason for the lack of women’s participation in the American film industry. Locating statistics about women’s positions in the industry, Sweet explains that women held only 15% of the creative positions on the top 250 domestic grossing films of 2006. From there, her analysis of this situation is startlingly simple: women aren’t cool, or at least are not perceived as cool. Sweet’s article highlights the reality that an industry that has long catered to a young male audience has made its audiences’ perceptions its own. She proposes that unless cultural perceptions change, this hardwired connection will silence countless women artists.
Issues of identity marketing arise in Stephen Harrick’s article, “Something More ‘Universal:’” Women, Marketing, and Independent Films.” Looking at Christina Lane’s essay, “Just Another Girl Outside the Neo-Indie,” Harrick assesses her observations about the travails faced by women directors in American independent film. He questions Lane’s analysis of the marketing campaign for The 24-Hour Woman, an independent film about a Latina woman struggling to balance her personal and professional lives. While Lane argues that The 24-Hour Woman was unsuccessful because it was marketed to a general indie audience, with little attention given to enlisting the support of Hispanic groups and leaders, Harrick suggests that a marketing approach focused on questions of ethnicity can also lead to women’s films being denied the opportunity to reach a wider, crossover audience.
While analyzing an entirely different case study, crossover appeal is what Nina Orechwa writes about in her article, “Two Timing Cinema: The Hybridization of Independent and Mainstream Filmmaking Trends in The Piano.” In 1993 Jane Campion’s independent film won several Oscars and became a critical and box office success. Orechwa notes that this development is odd considering the film’s content: a trip across the world by a voluntarily mute woman and her young daughter, an arranged marriage that features no love, an initially coerced adulterous affair between the woman and one of her husband’s compatriots, and a depiction of characters’ sexuality as often being colored by their misogyny. As Orechwa points out, these factors place the film well outside the range of narratives found even in indie film, and so she examines the reasons for The Piano’s indie and mainstream success. Her analysis underscores the significant role that critical reception plays in the perceived appeal of many independent films.
Indies are generally reliant on strong reviews to be successful in a crowded marketplace. The reading and reception that critics pass on to their readers colors the general audience’s subsequent reaction to the film. Highlighting the fact that the critical establishment promoted The Piano as a “tidal wave of sensuality,” Orechwa notes that while she and other film scholars might not see the film that way, critics’ emphasis on sexuality led to box office success. Orechwa concludes that the intense relationship between critical reception and independent films can not only overwhelm perceptions of a film, it can also blur distinctions between independent and mainstream films.
The final piece in this issue is an in-depth essay on representation in cinema by Rosalind Sibielski entitled “Avoiding the Male Gaze: The Search for Alternate Ways of ‘Viewing’ Sexual Difference in U.S. Independent Cinema and U.S. Popular Culture.” Assessing the profound influence of Laura Mulvey’s landmark essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Sibielski looks at how the idea of a male gaze has permeated scholarship and practice – with observers continually finding it in films and filmmakers attempting to establish some alternative. Contributing an important insight, Sibielski points out that by labeling of the gaze as “male” rather than “patriarchal,” she focused attention on “questions of gender rather than questions of ideological orientation.”
Sibielski explains that attempts to find or create a female gaze have led scholars and filmmakers to address problems of the gaze in superficial or counter-productive ways. Unfortunately, alternative deployments of the gaze that involve “women looking . . . at men or at each other” end up serving the same ideological purpose as the male gaze. Efforts to re-appropriate the male gaze, or to turn the gaze back on itself, have become entangled in the same ideology as conventional uses of the gaze, giving sanction to the politics of sexual difference and dominance that it implies. As Sibielski makes clear, simply changing the gender of the gaze does nothing to erase the values bound into the gaze as a representational strategy that reinforces patriarchal values of sexual difference and power.
Sibielski proposes that true opposition to the male gaze is not “female” but “feminist.” She cites two independent films, Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity and Lizzie Borden’s Working Girl as being particularly good examples of films that feature a feminist critique and deconstruction of the way the gaze figures into patriarchal representations. She explains that cinematic and narrative choices in Personal Velocity “comment on the eroticization of women within patriarchal culture, as well as the duel fascination and dread that surrounds women’s visual coding as object of the gaze.” She observes that Miller’s film “suggests that when it comes to the search for oppositional representations, it is not a re-gendering of the gaze, but rather a reconceptionalization of the act of looking.” Sibielski’s nuanced analysis of textual strategies in Working Girls, a film set in a high-class brothel, also demonstrates how the film de-erotizes images of women and the sex work of its female characters. Her discussion shows how the film underlines the economic aspect of prostitution, the danger and monotony women face, and how Borden’s ostensibly mainstream use of framing and editing erase any glimmer of romanticism from prostitution, instead prompting viewers to see the profession and especially the women’s clientele in a critical light.
Taken together, the articles in this issue of The Projector invite us to rethink assumptions about women’s role in American independent film – on screen and off. The essays also suggest the need to: reassess choices about cinematic and narrative strategies in a film movement that ostensibly prides itself on its distinction from the norm; question (corporate) decisions about the marketing and distribution of “independent” films; and look more closely at the conventional terms critics use to discuss even independent films.
As the essays make evident, independent cinema can often fail to make a break with cultural norms because of the patriarchal patterns underlying production and reception. In closing, one might note that the design and critical/box office record of Stephen Soderbergh sex, lies, and videotape is a case in point. The film, which focused on a young man with a predilection for recording intimate conversations with women about their sexual lives, not only caught fire with critics, winning the Palme d’Orr at Cannes, it also managed a box office gross of twenty five times the film’s shooting cost. It may be that the film’s central image of women baring themselves physically and emotionally for the man behind the camera is a succinct summation of the abiding gender politics in American (independent) film and culture.