An essay film, staged as a short drama deploying a first person, diary film narration over exquisitely designed object oriented “still life” tableaus, Gillian Leahy’s My Life Without Steve (1986) was a sensational hit in the mid-1980s. It won the Grand Prix and the Irwin Rado Award for Best Australian Film at the Melbourne International Film Festival, and the General Category of the Greater Union Awards (today’s Dendy Awards) at the Sydney Film Festival. The film screened widely and generated passionate debate.
The film is recognisable today as an example of “stasis” or “slow cinema” – think Jim Jarmusch’s Stanger Than Paradise (1984) or Todd Haynes’ Safe (1995), a slow cinema characterised by minimal movement, distanced framing, restrained emotional expression, and an estrangement of affect. The film is moving, but often not through the usual means of sutured emotional identification with character and story. It’s more Maya Deren, with a horizontal narrative dimension and a vertical poetic or associative one.
The film opens with light on water, an inner city Sydney harbour scene – not so much the usual confident grand vision, but rather the more modest and subtle, light industrial inner city port. The camera moves in what feels like a steady-cam track – a long, slow movement with hints of subjective presence – from the scenic exterior into the interior of an apartment. Here we begin to read the everyday habits and sensibility of a narrator, Liz (Jenny Vuletic), a woman emotionally wounded at the end of a love relationship. It’s an interior monologue, drawing on books, memories, correspondence and dreams, on emotional distress, denial and melancholia. Among the first references Liz alludes to in her reflections is Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia, where a failure of mourning leaves the psyche vulnerable to the grip of depression and anguish.
We see still photographs stuck up around the apartment, a collage illustrating moments from the relationship as it once was. This allows us a distanced reference embodying the narrator and her “Steve.” But it’s the disembodied voice moving in and out of resonance with closely observed everyday objects and events glimpsed in the world outside, the stillness and resolute ordinariness, that elicits the spectator’s engaged reading of the image, and conjures a conversational internal dialogue with the narrator and her recursive, philosophical musings. There is narrative available in the images as we move from day to night and through the seasons, but the point is not a passage toward progress or “cure”; rather a kind of compulsive repetition. The image and the character return again and again to the scene of a damaged and self-punishing self.
It was this question of masochism, and its relation with romantic love under patriarchy, that generated controversy when the film first appeared. Questions around whether the film worked decisively as a creative exploration of this story territory, or as an endorsement of its suffering, divided some audiences. In an influential review Barbara Creed decreed it “post-feminist” and “hysterical,” seeing the image as frequently symbolic and slave to the audio track, remarking that some viewers “feel My Life Without Steve signifies a total rejection of feminist analysis of the social construction of femininity, the nature of relationships and the role of women in patriarchal society.” (1)
My Life Without Steve was one of a number of essay films made in Australia during the 1980s, often by feminist filmmakers who developed their work around autobiographical material. Gillian’s film is distinguished – beyond its “politically incorrect” editorial – by its formal consistency and clarity, by the precision of its mise en scene and image. It is a film for the cinema.
Unlike most of the independent films of the filmmakers’ co-op period (circa 1970–86), My Life Without Steve was shot on 35mm. It was made at a moment when the specificity of the medium of film was a political issue, as 16mm was no longer “sub-standard” and video was effectively contesting film as a medium for independent production and distribution. Leahy, with producer Digby Duncan, was able to persuade the Australian Film Commission – who funded the film through the Women’s Film and Creative Development Funds – of the necessity of 35mm resolution to the creative concept driving the work. The extra costs of this, over 16mm, were discounted against the contained location, and the absence of the normal expenses of shooting live action drama with actors.
Leahy’s collaborators on the project, cinematographer Erica Addis (2) and art director and storyboard artist Jan Mackay (whose exquisite poster for the film is one of the treasures of the Co-op archive), meticulously fashion scene after scene as a series of still-life compositions, redolent with vernacular verisimilitude. Today they’re like ethnographic time capsules. (3) These “product shots” – the kettle, the sink, the dripping tap, perform almost as observational documentary in their depiction of time passing. Their evocation of vivid feelings coming out of darkness on occasion work as allegory to the emotional states of the first person narrator, and can be read at times, as Creed says, with specific illustrative significance. Simultaneously, though, they establish a distanciation affect through their aesthetic refinement and precision. The pace of the cutting and the performance of the narration contribute to this, as does the track lay and mix, delivering disconnect and “distance” at every opportunity in the sound design. While we are privy to emotional conflict articulated in voiceover – in particular around the relationship between Liz and her mother – the “life without Steve” seems more concerned with theorising love and loss than with a discrete psychological portrait.
The film muses around its theme from Freud to pop, from Dylan to Split Enz, from Collette to country lament. Verses from popular songs counterpoint literary references. Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” from Blood on the Tracks (1975) is cited, for example, a song that contains the lines; “You’re gonna make me wonder what I’m saying/ You’re gonna make me give myself a good talking to.” Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse – another essential 1970s classic – informs the editorial idea. Barthes writes: “What is proposed then is a portrait – but not a psychological portrait: instead, a structural one which offers the reader a discursive site; the site of someone speaking within… amorously, confronting the other (the loved object), who does not speak” (4). Certainly Steve does not speak – he is decidedly conspicuous by his absence, a void lovingly embraced and overflowing with the materialist discourse of the object world. The luscious attentiveness to the mundane celebrated in the image reclaims sensuousness in contrast with the abstracted romantic concerns of the voiceover.
In keeping perhaps with Barthes’ observation that a knowing discourse of lovers has been forsaken in the age of scientific rationality, Leahy’s film affirms slow reading and reflection on these emotional states in defiance of mass culture’s valorisation of speed and “progress.” In their stillness, the visuals evoke absence and loss, but also attend to a here and now. We want to say “move on” – but she can’t. This romantic fixated gaze, fascinated by the beauty of the ephemeral in stasis, is symptomatic resistance, a denial that all things must pass.
1. Barbara Creed, “The post-modern blues or My Life Without Steve” in Annette Blonski, Barbara Creed and Freda Freiberg (eds), Don’t Shoot Darling: Women’s Independent Filmmaking in Australia (Richmond VIC: Greenhouse, 1987), p. 354.
2. Erica Addis also shot Serious Undertakings (Helen Grace, 1986), screening at the Melbourne Cinematheque alongside My Life Without Steve as part of the Co-ops program.
3. Thanks to Hart Cohen for drawing my attention to the possibility of an approach to the film as urban ethnography.
4. Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1979), p. 3.
My Life Without Steve (1986 Australia 53 mins)
Prod Co: Galfilms Prod: Digby Duncan and Gillian Leahy Dir: Gillian Leahy Scr: Gillian Leahy Phot: Erica Addis Ed: Denise Haslem Art Dir: Jan Mackay
Cast: Jenny Vuletic (voiceover)