BY Erika Balsom in Opinion | 21 SEP 19
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Issue 206

Laura Mulvey’s Late Style

In a new collection, the author of ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ updates her approach to feminism and psychoanalysis 

BY Erika Balsom in Opinion | 21 SEP 19

Alfred Hitchcock, Vertigo, 1958. Courtesy: Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock

‘Certain artists care enough about their métier to believe that it, too, ages and must face death with failing senses and memory.’ For the theorist and filmmaker Laura Mulvey, Edward Said’s words in his posthumously published book of essays On Late Style (2006) aptly describe the twilight reflection on classical cinema found in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece Vertigo. Said suggests that artists in their last years of work tend to take one of two paths. On the one hand, there is reconciliation, serenity, harmony, resolution. What he finds more interesting is a second kind of lateness, one marked by intransigence, unresolved contradiction and self-imposed departure from accepted norms. Said writes of ‘an inherent tension in late style that abjures mere bourgeois ageing and that insists on the increasing sense of apartness and exile and anachronism’. Although Hitchcock would continue to make films for almost two decades after Vertigo, Mulvey discerns such a lateness in how the film questions the conventions of classical Hollywood, then in decline. Vertigo appeared in a moment characterized by, in her words, a ‘melancholic liberation as the professional world of the masters faced its own end’. Mulvey argues that, as the studio system crumbled and television eclipsed cinema, Hitchcock deployed the tropes of classicism – a male protagonist investigating an enigmatic woman, a spectacular display of femininity – only to inflect them with irony and excess, embracing the ‘aura of death’ cast over his form to produce a meditation on filmic fascination and, more specifically, its lynchpin, the fetishized image of woman.

Mulvey’s essay on Vertigo appears in  Afterimages: On Cinema, Women and Changing Times (2019), a new collection of her writings out this November from Reaktion Books. As hinted at in the title’s evocation of belatedness and transformation, the critical retrospection Mulvey ascribes to Vertigo is equally a feature of her own prose. If the late 1950s stand as one moment of cinema’s social and technological mutation, recent years figure as another – a time of senescence that coincides with Mulvey’s own passage into her 70s. Tying together 14 texts on a wide array of subjects – including Max Ophüls’s Lola Montès (1955), Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963), Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) and moving-image artworks by Morgan Fisher and Isaac Julien – is a concern for looking back, for thinking about the cinema as something past, fragile, perishable – something inextricably intertwined with Mulvey’s own life. As she puts it, ‘the cinema has moved from a technological straightjacket into a lived flexibility’, opening up new avenues of inquiry, new modes of engagement.

Isaac Julien, Masquerade No. 3, from the series ‘Looking for Langston Vintage’, 1989/2016, silver gelatin print mounted on aluminium, 58 × 74.5 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Victoria Miro, London, Metro Pictures, New York, and Ron Mandos Galerie, Amsterdam

With the fading dominance of the cinema as a cultural institution comes a shift in the critic’s attitude towards it. Mulvey remains best known for the fierce call-to-arms of her watershed 1975 article ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, in which she argues that films such as Vertigo were ‘cut to the measure of male desire’, structured according to the ‘male gaze’ – a term she coined that has been widely taken up since. In response to this gendered system of looking, Mulvey called for the destruction of pleasure as a radical weapon. Rather than buying into the seductive illusion of narrative cinema, Mulvey sought to shatter its spell and clear ground for the creation of a new filmic language. Relinquishing her cinephilia, she pursued a scorched-earth policy, calling for an overturning of Hollywood’s regime of voyeuristic scopophilia in favour of a formally radical feminist counter-cinema – something she pursued in collaboration with Peter Wollen in films such as Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons (1974) and Riddles of the Sphinx (1977). In Riddles of the Sphinx, the filmmakers undo Hollywood’s spectacle of femininity through a series of 360-degree pans that refuse to fix the body in the frame. A story of motherhood, domestic labour and the place of women under patriarchy is broken into chapters, accompanied by a theoretical discourse that reflects on the making of the film and its themes. Readers familiar only with this period of Mulvey’s practice may find the tone of Afterimages surprising, particularly the author’s palpable love for filmmakers such as Hitchcock and Ophüls. Militancy gives way to mourning, as Mulvey plunges deeper into the elegiac mode already present in her 2006 publication Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image.

Despite this shift of tone, Afterimages takes up themes and concepts long central to Mulvey’s thinking, particularly feminism and psychoanalysis. There is little sense that the author’s positions have changed substantially; true to the temporal exile of late style, her investments persist in altered form as they are rearticulated in relation to the demands of the present. In ‘Marilyn Monroe: Emblem and Allegory of a Changing Hollywood’, for instance, Mulvey explores the star’s ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ (a famous neologism coined in ‘Visual Pleasure’) while indulging her own attraction to Monroe’s image, particularly as it is encountered via home-viewing technologies capable of pausing or slowing the flow of time. In the selection of essays on women’s cinema that comprises the book’s second part, Mulvey’s continued interest in psychoanalysis informs her examination of five films that experiment with cinematic language to give voice to the maternal, deemed unspeakable under patriarchy, including Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s Under the Skin of the City (2001) and Clio Barnard’s The Arbor (2010). Writing on Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) allows for a belated confrontation with one of the great blind spots of 1970s feminist film theory: the question of race.

This tension between consistency and revisionism is especially present in the book’s concluding appendix, ‘Ten Frequently Asked Questions on “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”’. Perhaps the most cited article in the discipline of film studies, the text is as widely read as it is ungenerously understood. When encountering a canonical polemic such as this, it is easy – indeed, too easy – to fault it for insufficient nuance. Mulvey’s FAQ contextualizes her thinking and explains why the seemingly misogynist discourse of psychoanalysis was, in the 1970s, deemed a useful tool for feminist critique. Throughout, she shows herself to be open to a consideration of shortcomings without relinquishing central claims. At a time when film studies has largely retreated from the generalizing thrust that grounds ‘Visual Pleasure’, and when some claim that the scopic regime Mulvey described has been superseded by post-cinematic forms, this return to an essay that is more than 40 years old might seem to be little more than an attempt to dwell in the past. And yet, at once melancholic and intransigent, this revisitation of ‘Visual Pleasure’ speaks to the enduring power and relevance of the text today. Beyond giving a language to the gendered power relations that still inscribe circuits of looking, ‘Visual Pleasure’ is a model of how to write about film with passion and commitment. Throughout Afterimages, as in her most famous essay, Mulvey shrugs off stuffy academicism. She acknowledges that, in writing ‘Visual Pleasure’, she wanted ‘to be 100 percent polemical’, rightly noting that it would not be acceptable ‘in the academic context, to think and write in terms of such sweeping statements and manifesto-like style’. It’s true, it wouldn’t be – but perhaps it should.

Laura Mulvey’s Afterimages: On Cinema, Women and Changing Times will be published by Reaktion Books on 15 November.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 206 with the headline ‘Laura Mulvey’s Late Style’.

Erika Balsom is a reader in film studies at King’s College London, UK, and the author of TEN SKIES (Fireflies Press, 2021).