Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 11, May 2003

 

 

Paul McEwan

 

The Voice and Masculinity

 

 

_Close Up: Cinema and Modernism 1927-1933_

Edited by James Donald, Anne Friedberg, and Laura Marcus

London: Cassell, 1998

ISBN 0-304-33516-9

341pp.

 

Cinema is a unique art form in that its criticism begins at its birth rather than following much later. While the essays in this collection examined film when it was more than 30 years old, the relative youth of the medium inspired a prescriptiveness that reflects both the hopes of its early critics and their cautious hopes for modernity. The writers of _Close Up_, like numerous other early film critics, are constantly suggesting plans for an ideal film culture full of challenging films. While there is much fear about what film might settle to be, there is little talk about what film is. The discussion is primarily in the realm of what might be.

 

That desire to prescribe a future for cinema is what gives the essays in this collection most of their bite, and what makes them so interesting 70 years later. There are few thematic links between these pieces overall, despite the excellent editing job that Donald, Friedberg, and Marcus have done. The range and intelligence of the magazine's contributors means that it is the potential of cinema that is being explored and argued for, even if they differ on the details of that potential.

 

_Close Up_ was an international publication with mainly British editors and contributors. The editors' relationship to their home country's film production is primarily to lament its dismal status in relation to the French industry or, more importantly, Soviet cinema. The magazine existed at a key historical moment, coming into existence right as sound is added to American film, and well positioned to observe the spread of this new technology in the ensuing years.

 

For most of the magazine's writers sound is a hindrance rather than a help in the development of the medium. The contribution of Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Alexandrov, whose famous 'Statement on Sound' was first translated into English here, is influential with a number of authors who fear that greater theatrical realism will undermine film's avant-garde and political potential. The editors have wisely chosen to reprint Eisenstein's contributions to _Close Up_ sparingly, since they are available elsewhere.

 

Among the more interesting contributions in the collection is a short section on the POOL films -- silent movies made by members of the _Close Up_ collective whose content was apparently as obscure as their exhibition (most were shown rarely if at all). These films included _Borderline_, a feature starring Paul Robeson that is now more widely available. While _Close Up_ editor Kenneth Macpherson worked on the photoplay for _Borderline_ , the magazine produced a special issue on the 'Negro in Film'. Two articles from that issue on race in American cinema by Harry Potamkin and Geraldyn Dismond are fascinating accounts of the intermingling of art and politics at the end of the 1920s.

 

While the issue of race warranted a special issue, arguments about gender and cinema were a more regular facet of the magazine's output. With a number of women writers, complex questions about feminism and film were repeatedly brought to the fore. In addition to the contributions of Bryher (who supported the magazine financially), and the poet and novelist H.D., the writings of Dorothy Richardson are particularly fascinating examples of early feminist film criticism. They are also valuable additions to our understanding of debates about the coming of sound.

 

Richardson's primary contributions to film criticism appeared in _Close Up_ under the banner 'Continuous Performance', and the editors reproduce them in their entirety. Richardson tackles a range of issues in early film, and audiences' reaction to it. The essays that relate to feminism are not feminist in the sense that they deal explicitly with women's political issues of the day -- they are not about suffrage or legal equality. Interestingly, it is perhaps only in light of the second wave of feminism that these articles could be regarded as feminist, in that they deal primarily with female subjectivity, and the ways in which that subjectivity shapes ones response to film.

 

Richardson's 'female subjectivity' is exactly that. It is in some senses essentializing, arguing that specific ways of thinking, of considering, are intrinsically and universally female. In addition, this is a subjectivity that colours all response to ideas, words, and art. The key facet of this feminine difference is the differing relationships of men and women to speech, and thus the primary thrust of Richardson's argument centers on her dismissal of the talkies. Speech, she argues, is inherently male, and to add it to film robs the form of all of its potential to be a distinct form of communication freed from the usual masculine constraints and ideas. The 'straight line' thinking that goes along with clear speech is a male preserve much inferior to women's memory in the form of passive consciousness, a memory:

 

'distinct from a mere backward glance, as distinct even from a prolonged contemplation of things regarded as past and done with, gathers, can gather, and pile up its wealth only round universals, unchanging, unevolving verities that move neither backwards nor forwards and have neither speech nor language' (205-6).

 

Later, when Richardson refers to women as 'humanity's silent half, without much faith in speech as a medium of communication' (206), it might be easy to read her assessment as simply the reflection of a time when women had comparatively little right to public speech, despite the progress of the suffragists. But her attack is not just on speech; it is on a form of linear thinking that goes along with 'clear' speech. Richardson is not trying to describe women's position at a point in history -- her attempt, inspired somewhat by psychology, is to interpret more substantial human thought processes. So while the discussions of speech seem historically specific in some ways, the discussions of female subjectivity and communication are a recognizable pre-echo of the roots of much postmodern feminist analysis in the way that they posit distinctly female ways of knowing or communicating.

 

Some of Richardson's discussions of female speech do seem more tied to a specific time period, but these are no less interesting, albeit for different reasons. In a piece dealing with the establishing of codes of conduct for theatre patrons, Richardson both cherishes and laments the presence of a particular type of female patron who talks incessantly throughout the film. While the endless chatter distracts her and prevents 'the possibility of escape via incidentals into the world of meditation or thought' (176), she cannot help but admire the woman for whom men, 'meeting her at her uttermost, here where so far there is not even a convention of silence to keep her within bounds, must sometimes need more than all their chivalry to stop short of moral homicide' (175). At this moment, where Richardson's love of film collides directly with her feminism, the feminism seems to win out. The tone of the essay, however, suggests that the talking woman has value to Richardson only as an annoyance to the men, and as someone whose escapades occasionally prove amusing. This is not the portrait of the type of woman Richardson champions in the rest of her work, a woman who cherishes the ability to communicate without speech, one who's state is just to be, rather than becoming. The woman in the theatre demonstrates Richardson's argument about the maleness of speech because the speech of the woman has no real purpose, conveys no important meaning -- everything she says can be reduced to 'chatter' and summarily dismissed. A reading of Richardson's work suggests that she recognizes this chattering as a common feature of women's speech, but rather than embrace this talking as worthwhile in its own right, she endorses a more sophisticated silent communication that is also distinctly female but easier to see as meaningful. While later feminist critics might champion women's 'chatter' as crucial to the assembling of relationships and the transfer of knowledge, Richardson argues that speech is a trap for women that wrecks their chance for direct communication;

 

'all women use speech, with individual differences, alike: in the manner of a facade. Their awareness of being, as distinct from man's awareness of becoming, is so strong that when they are confronted, they must, in most circumstances, snatch at words to cover either their own palpitating spiritual nakedness or that of another. They talk to banish embarrassment . . . In relation to men their speech is various. But always it is a facade' (206).

 

If speech is only a facade for women, it seems likely that its limits are cultural rather than biological, and thus might also be tied to a particular time. Richardson's argument is compelling though, because its relationship to its time mirrors the changing status of film in that period, as it moves from 'silence' not to sound, but to speech.

 

A number of Richardson's pieces deal with specific experiences involving early talkies, whose sound quality left much to be desired. As much as she is critical of this technological failure, which seems to confirm her worst suspicions, she asserts that no matter what the technology 'no spoken film will ever be able to hold a candle to silent drama, will ever be so speaking' (195). Words demand attention that can only draw away from one's experience of the cinematography. Here Richardson's argument moves from the feminist to the artistic, although the two are closely related. Photographic communication is pure on its own, Richardson argues, and although it can exist alongside musical sound, it is rendered artificial by having to fight for a place against recorded speech.

 

Richardson's championing of the visual in cinema can seem naive to modern eyes. Underlying her relentless support for what can be seen is perhaps a belief that the visual is less corrupted, more pure, trustworthy, while the verbal is ripe for manipulation. Later feminist critics like Laura Mulvey have tried to demonstrate that even the visuals of cinema are structured around male forms of knowing. More importantly, filmmakers in Richardson's own time, particularly the Russians Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Alexandrov, openly discussed the ways in which even silent films could be manipulated to portray political ideas that were surely part of the male realm Richardson tries to dismiss (83-84). Richardson was certainly aware of the Soviet work, since she makes references to it in other contexts, so why does she retain her faith in the primacy of the image?

 

One explanation is that the addition of words to film, even one that was explicitly political in the first place, further limits the range of possible interpretations the viewer can make. More of the control of the film experience passes out of the hands of the spectators into those of the (usually male) filmmaker, and the film inevitably moves toward narrative, toward a description of events rather than an image of existence.

 

Might film have developed along more feminine lines if speech had never become the standard for production? Richardson obviously believed so, but it might be a question that is impossible to answer. Film certainly developed as a masculine form for more reasons than the simple imposition of speech. The male control of studios and the means of production meant that film reflected the tendencies and beliefs of a male dominated culture. Of course if film had developed without speech it would likely have followed a very different path, one impossible to predict, but that might show some signs of the forms Richardson champions. Silence would have forever freed film from the trappings of realism, and opened the possibility of other ways of telling stories and conveying ideas. Silence would have forever distanced film from the theatre and created a reliance on image that would have altered both the audience's relation to cinematography and the cinematography itself. Instead, despite the apparent primacy of image that has remained in film, the audience has learned to rely on sound to tell the story. Mainstream filmgoers have always, it seems, preferred to have the story told to them rather than accept the ambiguity that comes with too much individual interpretation. In the end, this is one weakness of Richardson's argument. The choice of silent film means that one embraces an essentially modern artistic experience where meanings are greatly dependent on mediation between filmmaker and audience. This task is not one that all people are capable of or willing to embrace. When so much of our outside world depends on speech it is inevitable that we would be most comfortable with films that do so too. Perhaps when I say we I mean men, but I am not convinced that the relationship between masculinity and speech is as pronounced as it was when Richardson was writing. In the more recent past, questions about women's speech and their right to it have come to the forefront in a way that finally addresses some of the inequalities Richardson points out. The key has been the move, as part of women's studies, from a focus on public speech to an interest in private speech, the way women tell stories and assert themselves to each other in groups. While it remains to be seen whether these differences between male and female speech can ever be completely overcome in a way that would box Richardson's argument into a corner of historical specificity, her writing opens up lines of inquiry into the practice of feminist filmmaking by changing our understanding of all of the 'vocabularies' of film production.

 

There has been an explosion of films (particularly documentaries) made by women in the past 30 years that have attempted to mark out a place in the cinema for women's voices. The strength of Dorothy Richardson's work is that it offers possibilities for finding those voices in image as much as in speech.

 

If these essays were all this collection offered, it would be very valuable indeed. The variety and ferocity of the rest of the selections makes the book essential reading.

 

Northwestern University

Evanston, Illinois, USA

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2003

 

Paul McEwan, 'The Voice and Masculinity', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 11, May 2003 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol7-2003/n11mcewan>.

 

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