It could almost be a parlour game to try to talk about Laura Mulvey without mentioning her famous essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, with its more than fifteen thousand citations and the phrase the male gaze entering the culture with the same quiet assertiveness as terms like paradigm shift, the uncertainty principle or the death of the author. Mulvey acknowledges fully its influence in the closing section of the book, as she answers some of the most frequently asked questions since its appearance in Screen in 1975. What is most striking about her answers is the surprise she feels in the influence it has had, that it possessed an afterlife that she could not have predicted or expected. “I felt a bit ambivalent”, she says, “about an essay that had been written completely outside of an academic context and without any academic purpose in mind becoming, as it were, ‘a standard text’.” (p. 250) But although her new book seems ostensibly far away from some of the preoccupations of her properly seminal essay, the idea of an afterlife is what she comes back to again and again over the question of images. Whether it is Hollywood classics everywhere evident in a work, Le Mépris (Contempt, Jean-Luc Godard, 1963), that was once described by Colin McCabe as “the greatest work of art produced in postwar Europe”,1 or the archival footage of the writer Andrea Dunbar with her young daughter in The Arbor (2010), Mulvey shows a continuing fascination for the image that comes after – for the moments filmed that become moments in another film or give another context that its original production could not have assumed.
How could Robert Aldrich know that the casting of Jack Palance in The Big Knife (1952) would also be a precasting for the actor’s role in Godard’s Le Mépris, or that Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa (1954) and Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) would respectively offer a template for Godard’s films? Though Mulvey acknowledges that Godard’s real-life producers Carlo Ponti and Joe Levine were also in the mix, what interests her are the iconographic influences the films have on Godard’s masterpiece, as though echoing Susan Sontag’s claim, many years earlier, when she distinguished between artists who possess a “disdainful attitude toward high culture and the past […] like Duchamp, Wittgenstein and Cage” and others who “like Joyce, Picasso, Stravinsky and Godard – exhibit a hypertrophy of appetite for culture […] they proceed by voraciously scavenging in culture, proclaiming that nothing is alien to their art.”2 What interests Mulvey, however, is not simply the issue of intertextuality but how time as a contingent factor impacts on this question. It is all very well to suggest that a film has been influenced by another, to say that we see Leone westerns all over Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) or numerous knowing nods to Demy’s musicals in La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016). It is more that Mulvey indicates that The Big Knife and others had to be made so that Godard’s films could access their iconography and explore it. Mulvey notes that in 1958, Mankiewicz’s The Quiet American, Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse and Anthony Mann’s Man of the West fall into Godard’s top ten (all in the top five), and reckons that such films became part of an old cinema that Godard was countering with a style that needed their presence to arrive at “a ‘new’ modernist cinema.” (p. 76) “The filmmaker functions less as a scriptor than as a fashioner of palimpsests, texts write over other texts creating new meanings from the superimposition of old ones.” (p. 76-77) Though Godard had no direct need of Mann’s film, he casts one of the leads from The Quiet American in a key role in Le Mépris (Giorgia Moll as the producer’s assistant) and Bonjour Tristesse’s star Jean Seberg in A bout de souffle (1960). There is nothing unusual in this; actors all the time appear in one work and find much more suitable casting in another, and directors frequently see an actor they admire in one film as a film fan and then utilise them in their own work fully cognisant of their earlier status. Whether it is Claire Denis using Michel Subor in Beau Travail (1999) many years after he appeared in none other than Godard’s Le Petit Soldat (1963), and giving the character the same name, Bruno Forestier, or Tarantino casting Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (a an “A Band Apart” production), fully aware of her back catalogue in the early to mid-seventies. Yet we may now regard such co-optations as Godardian: that it was Godard more than anybody who introduced into cinema that any film made was not a diegetically coherent object but an opportunity to be turned into another, potentially more meaningful and certainly more self-reflexive work in the future. Godard’s cinema is full of re-appropriations, from utilising scenes from The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) as Nana cries at the cinema in Vivre sa Vie (1962), to the hairstyle Anna Karina has in the same film echoing Louise Brooks, to Brigitte Bardot in Le Mépris donning a wig in turn that will bring to mind both Brooks and Karina. When Bernardo Bertolucci shows his three characters running through the Louvre in The Dreamers (2003) this isn’t only a homage to Godard’s Band à part, it is Godardian.3
What Mulvey specifically seeks to show is the way that Le Mépris produces a “modernist masterpiece” out of classical collapse. The big studios were struggling and putting too many eggs in the biggest of baskets and turning their auteurs into figures who were expected to lay only golden eggs. Anthony Mann with El Cid (1961), Mankiewicz with Cleopatra (1963), Hawks with Land of the Pharaohs (1955), Nicholas Ray with King of Kings (1961) were all making “epics” and Le Mépris is itself about the making of one such film, with Fritz Lang (another of Godard’s favourites) cast as a filmmaker trying his best to work with bloated budgets and unrealistic expectations: an epic tale about Odysseus. Indeed, Mankiewicz’s film, released around the same time as Godard’s, was a protracted production that was partly shot in the very Rome studio that Godard was working in: Cinecittà. Clearly the films were not made so that Godard could produce a work of art out of their relative failure but without them Godard’s film could not exist as it does, and few would regard any of the epics as possessing the aesthetic significance of Godard’s film. After looking at the various ways in which Le Mépris draws upon cinema and especially fifties Hollywood, Mulvey concludes, “it is the interaction of these different layers, simultaneously detached and dependent on each other, that is contradictory, modernist and ultimately moving in Godard’s meditation of the decline of Hollywood and the rise of his own new wave.” (p. 87)
Later in the book, Mulvey differentiates four categories that are useful in thinking about recuperated images: the aforementioned palimpsest, détournement, gleaning and haunting. A palimpsest indicates a “double inscription: one text is laid over another, the original might be partly erased but still haunt the later text” and Mulvey believes that similarly “found footage is overlaid by its later reconfiguration, two time levels exist simultaneously.” (p. 144) Détournement is when “a pre-existing text usually of high-standing) would be distorted for political critique, producing an antagonistic or antithetical reading” (p. 144), while gleaning concerns “the process of collecting, accumulating, sifting through and recycling discarded materials”, (p. 144) evident literally in Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I (2000), and present in the work of numerous contemporary artists, as Nicolas Bourriaud explores in The Exform: “the question of art as an expelled object.”4 Haunting, meanwhile, concerns “film’s preservation of images of the living dead, figures from long ago that still move, gesture, perform exactly as they did when registered on film.” (p. 144) Mulvey’s essay here on Marilyn Monroe suggests that haunting: “the graphic nature of Marilyn’s ‘mask’ creates its own slowness, absorbing the camera’s attention as though into a slowness of its own, so that her close-ups create a point of comparative repose or stasis.” (p. 70)
To these we can add another couple of terms that Mulvey uses as well, defamiliarisation from Shklovsky and Derrida’s “archive fever”. In a book that contains thirteen disparate essays on film as varied as Lola Montès (Max Ophuls, 1955), Le Mépris and Jeanne Dielman, 23 qui du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman, 1975), The Arbor and Daughter of the Dust (Julie Dash, 1991), as well as work closer to the gallery than to the cinema, by Mark Lewis, Mary Kelly and Morgan Fisher, so Mulvey allows the terms she offers to permeate the book, to make the films and works she writes on hang together even if the essays were originally written as discrete items. Take a term like defamiliarisation, which she uses in the context of Mark Lewis’s work, where he brings back obsolete technology in a series of short, experimental pieces that play up the oddness of a device that was standard in classic Hollywood, and that Hitchcock insisted on using long after it had become retrogressive technically. Hadn’t back projection always seemed extraneous even if it happened to be accepted? Lewis says that “back projection, certainly early back projection, brings together inefficiently two completely different types of film experience that we can hardly not notice their montage effect.” (p. 195) Lewis emphasises this still more in his own work, as if we can find a historical continuum between classic Hollywood acceptance, Hitchcockian recalcitrance and Lewis’s resurrection. Back projection may not have been a defamiliarising device originally but today it can seem surprisingly obvious to us, as though surely the films wanted to draw attention to their artifice, such is the gap between often a documentary background and a studio foreground. Some have questioned Mulvey’s claim that back projection indicates this inevitable gap, including Murray Pomerance, who thinks it depends partly on just how well done it happens to be,5 but Lewis’s purpose rests on opening up the two worlds: the studio foreground and the documentative backdrop in works like The Fight (2008) and Nathan Phillips Square: A Winter’s Night Skating (2009). Mulvey shows that the obsolete need not be so, that it can find a new purpose and generate reflections on its prior use. If Mulvey sees in Le Mépris the dying Hollywood given new life in the new wave, in Lewis she sees a dead commercial technology reinvigorated by experimental form.
Reading Mulvey’s book we might think of the famous Faulkner quote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This is especially relevant to her essays on Alina Marazzi’s For One More Hour with You’ (Un’ ora sola ti Vorrei, 2002) and The Arbor. Writing on Marazzi’s film, Mulvey well acknowledges there is nothing new in critics and filmmakers fully acknowledging “double temporality”, mentioning Jay Leyda’s sixties book Film Begets Film as well as Christa Blumlinger’s term ‘second-hand film’, and noting a film as early as 1927 using found footage: The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927). But what she finds in Marazzi’s film is a relationship with feminist questions just as she sees in The Arbor important ones of class. In For One More Hour With You, Mulvey notes that Alina was seven when her mother, Liseli, died, and though she was never mentioned by the family, nevertheless years later Alina discovered in the attic that numerous traces of her life were preserved. There were diaries and letters, but also, even more importantly for Alina’s purposes, numerous home movies by Liseli’s father showing his daughter growing up. While the father seemed to be showing a daughter raised in a wonderfully comfortable bourgeois world; Alina uses the footage to indicate her mother was also being brought up in a milieu that suggested suffering and silence. Mulvey sees this shift from what the footage was originally meant to indicate to what it can be seen to signify as an act of détournement: “the frequent but not essential, ideological gap between the original footage and the final film.” (p. 144) But she also recognises Derrida’s archive fever, linked to Gaston Bachelard’s “poetics of space”, that when Derrida speaks of the archive having both “a topology (a site) and a nomology (an authority)” (p. 147) one sees that “the space in which these memories are housed have a particular significance within the topography of the family home”, housed as they are in the attic.” (p. 147) While the grandfather could not see the point in his granddaughter doing anything with all this footage, seeing mere stupidities, Marazzi views the potential for utilising the footage to “say” what it was not initially “meant” to say, hence the détournement.
In The Arbor, the “double temporality” is very moving indeed as the political and the affective work in conjunction. Director Clio Barnard originally wished to make a documentary about the playwright Andrea Dunbar, a young woman brought up on a housing estate in Bradford who became a successful playwright at a very young age with the plays The Arbor and Rita, Sue and Bob Too. Dunbar died, a victim of abuse and alcohol, of a brain haemorrhage at 29. Wishing to make a film about her daughter Lorraine, a heroin addict imprisoned after her two-year old son died from swallowing her mother’s methadone, Bernard found a straightforward documentary impossible. Lorraine agreed to be interviewed but refused to be in the film. Barnard needed to think again, and came up with a factual account in fictional form: actors lip-synching to the words Lorraine and others were willing to speak. But the film also uses archival footage of Andrea’s life, including a moment when Andrea is seen boarding the train with her one year-old daughter at the beginning of the film and we see them sitting together on it at the end. There we have, in archival form, a mother alive and her baby daughter in her arms, while now we have, in the semi-fictionalised film about Andrea’s life, Andrea dead and Lorraine’s baby son gone as well. “The apparent closeness between the two [Andrea and Lorraine] is rendered almost unbearably poignant in light of both their future lives” (p. 161) The archival footage in The Arbor shows two working class lives laid to waste. If Marazzi can see that making her film indicates a feminist discourse coming out of bourgeois home movies, then this footage, filmed at the time to indicate Dunbar’s success, and the ability of the poor to rise above their circumstances, may now be viewed as showing just how difficult that can sometimes be: here it is footage hijacked for different ends and thus given new meaning.
At the time same time it is also an example of Nachtraglichkeit, of afterwardness, with Mulvey’s book more generally finding in the past image a present that is awaiting it. As she quotes Jean Laplanche: “the past has already something deposited within it that demands to be deciphered.” (p. 165) Mulvey’s book is in many ways a continuation of Death 24x a Second, both works constantly vacillating between the theoretical and the affective, the sense of meaning and the sense of loss, trying to find a conceptual means by which to articulate the latter with the tools of the former. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” will not go away any time soon, but there is a significance to her more contemporary work that deserves an afterlife too.
Laura Mulvey, Afterimages (London: Reaktion Books, 2019)
- Colin McCabe, “Le Mépris”, Sight and Sound 6:9 (September 1996): 55-56. ↩
- Susan Sontag, Styles of Radical Will (New York: Delta, 1970), p. 150. ↩
- In this sense we might see Grier in Jackie Brown as consistent with the Godardian as Tarantino nods to Leone are not; that there is no necessary afterlife to Django Unchained’s references to Leone westerns but immense afterlife in Grier’s seventies films awaiting Jackie Brown. ↩
- Nicolas Bourriad, The Exform (London: Verso, 2016), p. 94. ↩
- Murray Pomerance, The Eyes Have It: Cinema and the Reality Effect (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2013), p. 102. ↩