New York

“Difference: On Representation and Sexuality”

The New Museum/The Public Theater

The films included in the “Difference: On Representation and Sexuality” exhibition are clearly not the same as those produced by corporate Hollywood. There are no stories of adorable boy hoodlums overtaking entire high schools, no renegade cops undermining police bureaucracies by virtue of their sheer wit and cuteness, and no square-jawed private eyes navigating through a miasma of calculating jiggle. Rather than showing sexuality in an immutable, natural state, the films suggest a socially constructed sexuality, a perpetual shifting of positions, voices, and bodies only biologically fixed to gender. This collapsing of a binary notion of sexuality into a series of locations, pleasures, and repetitions is accomplished through a variety of cinematic procedures, ways to show and tell which escape conventional narrative closures and singular “character development.” Stories are punctured and rewritten, histories are undermined, humor is deployed, conjugations are conjured, and pronouns are paraded promiscuously.

In Thriller, 1979, Sally Potter rereads and rewrites Puccini’s La Bohème (1896). Opera seemed to Potter an apt form for scrutiny since she sees it as “a particularly clear example of the role of fiction in the production of ideology.” To call Thriller a rereading might imply attention only to a text and its subsequent skewing via other texts, but a film is not a book, and Thriller’s complexity results from the joining of its textual activity to a string of fluently pleasing images, a collection of black and white “still lives” which splinter the scene of the “original” spectacle and substitute its melodic lyricism with a series of questions, quotes, and laughters.

A voiceover by Mimi (Colette Laffont) examines the possible difference between her own labor as a seamstress, the work of the prostitute Musetta, and the creativity of the young men in the opera: a poet, a painter, a musician, and a philosopher. Is all poverty the same? “Do they suffer to create as I must suffer to produce?” “Could I have been the subject of the scenario rather than its object?” “Could I have been the bad girl, the one that didn’t die?” In La Bohème Mimi’s identity is fixed in a single body, but Thriller’s Mimi is all over the place. She investigates her own murder, becomes a “bad girl,” and reads books on theory and laughs at them. Potter’s scrutiny of La Bohème casts aspersions not only on opera as a cultural offering but also on the class and subject/object relations at work in a unified narrative, on the humorlessly rote repetition and mimicry of theoretical pronouncements, and on the picaresque adventures in poverty that envelop much artistic production.

In Committed, 1984, Sheila McLaughlin and Lynne Tillman engage in the rewriting of a different story: that of the actress Frances Farmer’s dive from activity to lobotomy. The medical procedure Farmer underwent is described as one that “severs those nerves which give emotional power to ideas,” so the film can be seen as addressing the silencing, the rendering inactive and absent, of a speaking subject. While Hollywood’s rendition of Farmer’s life is just another “life story,” McLaughlin and Tillman work to break down the singular sad song into a chorus of ambient exhortations, rationales, confessionals, and audience participations. Moments of expository speech dot the film, giving it a sense of histories, differing narratives, and melancholy soliloquies. Frances’ mother (Victoria Boothby) warns a radio audience to beware of commie entrapment. She is accompanied by an announcer extolling the virtues of mental hygiene, which has found its right humus in America. Frances (Mclaughlin) languishes in a mental hospital and confesses to a nurse that she is a casualty of love, involved in a relationship where “pleasure and pain are inextricably linked,” where you “can’t tell feeling good from feeling bad.” Clifford Odets (Lee Breuer) zigzags from punishing sadist to sorry little boy; acting out the old “good nipple/bad nipple” routine to the hilt, he degrades Frances and praises his wife as a saint. Farmer and Odets are seen as romantic contortionists in a grim ballet. Their “scenes” are powerful because they are free of the manner and stylistic embellishments that loiter around most narrative depictions of sexual obsession. No magenta light bounces off Frances’ forehead, no Armani is strewn sloppily around the room, no sunglasses or raincoats soften the blows. Committed’s formidable script takes on American-style red-baiting, psychiatry’s mania for alignment and “normality,” the complexities of the mother/daughter relationship, the brutal choreography of romance, and the unified expediencies of the biographical mode.

If Thriller is about a number of different “shes” and Committed fractures the singular historical “she,” perhaps Chantal Akerman’s Je, Tu, II, Elle (I, you, he, she, 1974) is an outline of the possibilities of the pronoun as the motor of narrative, the shifting focus of the conjugation. Throughout the film Akerman’s own figure is a constant, whether embroiled in the narcissism of display, contained by passivity, or activated by passion. But though Je, Iu, II, Elle has the makings of a flaunting confessional, its severe exposition, long shots, and tableau-like presentations lend an anthropological feel to the proceeding, turning even explicit sex scenes into “scenery,” into “exhibit A’s,” into studies in sensations, noises, and bodies. Multiple bodies also inhabit Yvonne Rainer's Film About a Woman Who. . . . , 1974, to the extent that “who” the “woman who” is becomes questionable. A number of unnamed women take part in a meandering conflation of verbal admissions, conversational and photographic arrangements, and smidgens of moments which suggest a woman’s reaction to “her own perfection or deformity.” Rainer’s work proceeds amid the acknowledgement that “if the mind is a muscle, then the head is a huntress and the eye is an arrow.” If the eye can be an arrow, perhaps the film attests to the possibility of removing women from the line of fire and doing so with smart impertinence and knowing laughter.

These films and many others in the program suggest a different way of storying, of not making a point but straying persuasively. But although having a point is a gender designation, making a point can be a sexually instructed activity, and one hopes in the future to see more critical work by men that addresses issues of sexuality and representation. The films I have mentioned, however, are made by women. They should encourage other projects intent on recognizing a female spectator, on welcoming a multiplicity of feminisms. So we hope for the emergence of different kinds of films, whether through the maneuvers of a theoretically derived cinema, from a more artisanal, art world context, or even sneaking between the phantasms of Hollywood. The boys may be taking over the high school but the girls’ minds are elsewhere. And when they show and tell us about it, it just might be a very different kind of story.

Barbara Kruger