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Laura Mulvey
Lara Thompson and Kamila Kuc: Laura Mulvey Retrospective
Lara Thompson and Kamila Kuc: Laura Mulvey Retrospective

Laura Mulvey's seminal essay 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' (1973, originally published in Screen in 1975) revolutionised the way cinema spectatorship was understood. It remains one of the most referred to English texts in the history of film studies, while Laura Mulvey has become one of the most significant film theorists in the world. In the essay Mulvey combined psychoanalysis, feminism and film theory and suggested that in a patriarchal world of sexual imbalance the pleasurable gaze of narrative film is divided between active male spectatorship and passive female objectification. Mulvey asserted that avant-garde and experimental film-making offered a direct means through which this inequality could be readdressed.

Between 1974 and 1983 Mulvey, together with Peter Wollen (influential film theorist and co-writer of Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger (1975)) made a series of six films and documentaries that engaged directly with this psychoanalytic, feminist polemic.

The feature-length film Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons (1974) is the first of a trilogy of films including Riddles of the Sphinx (1977) and Amy! (1980), that seek to question iconic mythologies of women through formalist, experimental editing techniques that confront dominant cinematic modes. Each of the films interrogates the myths and psychoanalytic forces that impact upon women from within the constraints of dominant patriarchy.

Structured in five sections, in an apparently continuous shot, Penthesilea was inspired by Heinrich von Kleist's 1808 play about the Amazonian queen. Mulvey and Wollen's version shifts from a mime of Kleist's Penthesilea to Wollen reading a monologue in which he discusses the figure of the Amazonian woman as an unobtainable ideal. The film then shows a complex montage of paintings, sculptures and comic strips all of which engage with the myth of the Amazons. In section four, in close-up, a woman speaks the powerful words of the feminist Jessie Ashley, a suffragette who died in 1919. In the last section of the film, four video images appear on screen, each one re-framing moments from the previous four sections of the film. Eventually, a fifth screen appears, at times displacing the other images, depicting the mimed stage performance of Pentheselia, and allowing the spectator to watch, voyeuristically, as the main actress removes her make-up and directly addresses the camera.

Riddles of the Sphinx (1977) features stunning, revolutionary 360° pans that spin slowly around the female spaces of domestic life but which continue into new spaces, creating a geography of the fantastic out of the protagonist's everyday life. Louise is a mother whose marriage is breaking down and who takes a job at a telephone exchange in order to support herself and her son. Her encounters with female friends and family are at times captured, at others obscured, by the distinctive formal camerawork. In one telling moment, Mulvey's regular camerawoman Diane Tammes is briefly captured in the reflection of a mirror. Mulvey and Wollen's groundbreaking camera spirals break the formal structures of dominant patriarchal culture and the ways in which it traps women as objects of the male gaze. In characteristic Mulvey/Wollen fashion, the film starts with the silent act of looking at representations of the sphinx, before Mulvey herself addresses the audience to discuss the nature of the film in relation to the myth and representation of the female sphinx, whose role in the central Oedipus Myth, Mulvey suggests, has been overlooked. The sphinx of the title is the film's imaginary narrator, an unknowable icon that eludes satisfactory depiction in front of the film camera, as a site for male fantasy and yet also a figure that resists patriarchy. Riddles of the Sphinx is Mulvey and Wollen's most celebrated and widely seen film, and arguably the most explicit attempt to put their work as film theorists into practise. The film was developed out of a combination of her ideas in 'Visual Pleasure' and Wollen's influential text 'Two Avant-Gardes' (first published by Studio International, 1975).

Made to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of Amy Johnson's legendary solo flight to Australia in 1930, Amy! (1980) interrogates the legend of the heroine through archive footage, interviews with female students and monologues to camera. In each phase of the film, the position of the heroine in contemporary society is questioned, along with an investigation into the systems of identity, reconstruction and exploitation that accompany the media-driven creation of the mythical 'superwoman'.

Set in London during the height of Thatcherite Britain, and told in three parts, Crystal Gazing (1981) focuses on the interwoven lives of four main characters as they navigate shifting relationships, rising unemployment and death. Neil is a lonely science-fiction illustrator who has just lost his job and is trying in vain to maintain his relationship with Kim, an up-and-coming saxophonist. Neil's friend Julian has written his psychoanalytic PhD thesis on language as power and desire in Charles Perrault's fairytale Puss in Boots. But when his thesis is rejected by his examiners he becomes increasingly depressed. Neil meets Vermillion, a satellite photographer, during a magician's show and in desperation eventually accepts a potentially dangerous job delivering a pawn ticket to Mexico City for her estranged businessman husband. Fate intervenes and Neil never makes it to Mexico. By turns comic and poignant, Crystal Gazing comments upon a bleak moment in British history when the optimism and radical intelligent thought of the '60s and '70s began to make way for a new pessimistic era of job cuts and renewed capitalistic fervour.

Frida Kahlo & Tina Modotti (1982) documents the lives of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo and Italian photographer Tina Modotti, two major female artists working in Mexico in the aftermath of the 1910 revolution, linked by their depiction in a mural by Kahlo's lover, Diego Rivera. Juxtaposing the lives and works of these two women in measured, often simplistic formal opposition, the film seeks to reflect on the representation of women's art and the position of female artists themselves, whilst offering a polemic about the choices for women, as its commentary, voiced by actress Miriam Margoyles, expresses: 'Two choices for women. The personal, the traditional sphere of women, their suffering, their self-image. On the other hand, the political: the renunciation of home and family to produce images dedicated to social change'.

The Bad Sister (1983) starts as a murder-mystery investigation into the suspected killing of Ishebel by her half-sister, which foregrounds the images, videotape and recordings which are used to piece together her story in deconstructive manner. It then becomes a fantasy melodrama that is more interested in the 'bad sister' herself, Jane Wild, (played by Dawn Archibald) the illegitimate daughter of a Scottish landowner, haunted by the memory of her mother's mysterious death. Mulvey and Wollen's anarchic, angry female protagonist, Jane dramatically cuts her hair and becomes a femme fatale on a magical trance-like tour of self discovery. Based on the novel by Emma Tennant, The Bad Sister aims to undermine the subgenre of female twin melodramas from the 1940s, championing Jane's power and utilising elegiac video effects to create an expressionist, dreamlike landscape.

Disgraced Monuments (1994) sees Mulvey collaborating with filmmaker and artist Mark Lewis to document the destruction of Soviet monuments in the former-USSR and question the implications of such cultural and historical annihilation on collective memory. Filmed in the wake of attacks in the crumbling Soviet Union on Communist statues, televised around the world in 1991 (prefiguring the iconic toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein during the invasion of Iraq in 2003), Mulvey and Lewis mix interviews with Russian artists, public officials and art critics with rich archival footage.

Many of Mulvey's films have been shown at various international film festivals and in leading art galleries in London, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Vienna and New York. This year's retrospective at Era is unique since it combines screenings of Mulvey's entire directorial back-catalogue. The retrospective is curated by Kamila Kuc and Lara Thompson, and the director will be present to deliver a masterclass. The retrospective will be accompanied by an exhibition of Mark Lewis' work at BWA Art Gallery, curated by Katarzyna Roj, and the publication of a reader including many of Laura Mulvey's key essays (Ha!Art).

After gaining a degree in history from Oxford in the early 1960s, much of Mulvey's early essays and films were influenced by a combination of her interest in the French film journal Cahiers du Cinema, her desire to expose the hidden patriarchal modes of 1950s Hollywood cinema, the feminist agenda of the women's movement and by the radical politics and social upheaval that evolved out of events in Paris in May 1968. The films that Mulvey made with Wollen and Lewis exemplify the psychoanalytic, feminist and political ideals that are present in her most famous essays.

Since 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' was published, Mulvey has written extensively on psychoanalysis and the cinema, publishing hundreds of articles in magazines and journals. Her books include Douglas Sirk (co-edited with Jon Halliday, 1972), Visual and Other Pleasures (1989), Citizen Kane (1992) and Fetishism and Curiosity (1996), British Experimental Television (co-edited with Jamie Saxton; 2007). In her most recent book, Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (2006), Mulvey continues to discuss film theory, spectatorship and narrative, while broadening the scope of her argument to include the impact of new media technologies on the temporal experience of film spectatorship as it shifts from a voyeuristic to a fetishistic gaze.

Laura Mulvey is a Fellow of the British Academy and on the board of many leading film magazines and journals, namely Film Studies and Framework. She is currently Professor of Film and Media Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London.

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