Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 8 No. 14, April 2004

 

 

Cara O'Connor

 

A Certain Sense of the Absolute and the Desire to Control Things:

_Jane Campion: Interviews_

 

 

_Jane Campion: Interviews_

Edited by Virginia Wright Wexman

Conversations with Filmmakers Series

General Editor: Peter Brunette

Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1999

ISBN 1-57806-083-4

216 pp.

 

A collection of interviews is an (auto)biography with special problems. No more so than in _Jane Campion: Interviews_, edited by Virginia Wright Wexman. Published in 1999, and part of the University Press of Mississippi's _Conversations with Filmmakers_ series, the book chronologically compiles talks with Jane Campion from 1984 (before she made her first feature) through 1997 (the release date of _Portrait of a Lady_). The book includes thirty-seven pieces with thirty-one different journalists from Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, the UK, and the United States. The book also includes a filmography (which is now out of date), a thoughtful introduction by Wexman, and an especially well organized index.

 

Looking through this index I found that the two concepts which recur most frequently are 'Autobiography' and 'Collaboration'. This offers a certain perspective on the book, not only in its ability to underline the fact that film is a highly collaborative art form, or to confirm that Campion fields her share of inquiries about links between her filmmaking and her life, but it works to remind the reader that the interview itself is a *collaboration* towards autobiography. The artist is asked to respond truthfully to a limited set of questions. These questions are isolated opportunities for her to explain herself to . . . the interlocutor, the world, herself, the future. She's clearly disadvantaged against historical truth -- so much so that in this chronologized setting her very own words can only be said to exist out of context. The interviewee is asked to describe the future, and her inaccurate predictions are held side by side with the reality that successive interviews reveal. The editor takes on the role of the historian -- albeit a somewhat passive one. Yet if you add the shaping force of the editor's linear construction to the interviewers' professional conventions, the result is a fragmented but influential biographizing team, like a village of Lilliputians, guiding the larger-than-life subject -- a subject divided by time into as many sections. And unlike her tiny collaborators she has the burden of being completely glued to her own story.

 

Of course any book of interviews might be described this way [1]. So, why would someone interested in *philosophy and film* be interested in this book of interviews in particular?

 

She wouldn't, necessarily, but she might. Obviously, if you are interested in Jane Campion, the filmmaker, then it is a useful book, or if you are interested in any one of the films (ending with _Portrait of a Lady_) there are useful anecdotes and details about the production process, from artistic influences to financial issues. And of course the questions of the interviewers reflect what the public perception of a particular film was, and how the public perception of the filmmaker changed over time. These are all issues that could be useful to someone studying or writing about the construction of the Author. How is the construction of 'Jane Campion' sustained, revised, and re-created by Campion herself, and how is it created by the contexts of her various interviews?

 

What I want to think about is this: In the construction of 'Jane Campion the Director' it is the subject's unified but contradictory identification with the idea of *feminine perspective* over which all other artistic matters are tossed around and propelled forward. Campion's fascination, or identification with the *feminine* seems on the one hand disappointingly over-determined, and on the other vitally necessary to her practice.

 

For those of us interested in the possibilities of feminism and art, Campion's self-presentation asks to be energetically scrutinized. And efforts to reconcile the contradictions in her *personal* philosophy carry all the more weight when there exists no comparable book on another a female director. [2]

 

Campion's is a story of a woman who succeeds as an artist because she continually finds a way to prioritize, in her professional life, obsessions which could have so easily divided another woman against herself. In fact, we find out that she was only able to really focus as an artist when she started making art about 'relationships, love . . . and sex!' (3).

 

In a 1984 conversation with Mark Stiles, Campion says: 'I would go to art school and draw and I couldn't wait to get home and gossip about the intricacies of relationships and so on. Then I thought 'why am I not doing my work about these things?''. (3) And with Marli Feldvoss in 1993 she says, 'Passion can be the path to happiness as well as to folly . . . I'm interested in this kind of ultimate experience' (100). And again in 1996 she tells Rachel Abramowitz: 'One of the most important things is to participate in relationships and friendships and particularly in the mythology of love. I have a deep need for intimacy. Almost every human being has it, and how you reconcile that with everything else in your life is a problem that comes up.' (187) Throughout the interviews she insists that the most important subjects for her filmmaking are passion, the mysteries of desire, and the redemptive power of love. But what does it mean for a woman to make art about love? Is there no other option?

 

Simone de Beauvoir explains the processes at work in the imagination of the 'young girl', and how these processes by which 'even when she chooses independence she none the less makes a place in her life for a man, for love . . . will work to weaken 'well-defined purposes''. [3] The ambitious young woman cannot compete with her male colleagues, whose free thoughts are taken up with their areas of worldly interest. For the boys, 'flights of fancy' are continuous with their studies and result in solutions to professional problems or brainstorms for new ideas. The girl's free thoughts are occupied by a fascination with love and desirability, concerns that contribute little or nothing to more concrete interests.

 

Campion clearly grew up thinking about men: 'I had a very low opinion of what sort of career potential I had as a person . . . The idea that I had never admitted to myself consciously was finding a husband whom I respected and whose work I though was wonderful . . . I was undirected mostly because I was confused about a woman's role.' (6) Campion was 'well aware that [she] was no genius' (89); 'never would have thought [she] could make a feature (203); and struggled with questions about whether or not she was good enough to be a director (49), because: 'I thought you had to become a kind of near genius to make movies . . . I knew I wasn't' (189). And yet she *did* become a director -- and not just any director but a semi-mainstream auteur easily compared to Peter Greenaway, Gus Van Sant, and David Lynch.

 

Campion is quick to acknowledge her influences and the importance of women in her imaginative and professional life. She goes into detail about her collaborations with cinematographer Sally Bongers, actor Holly Hunter, and producer Jan Chapman. She considers Wertmuller one of her heroes, and gives credit to Gillian Armstrong for making it possible to realize she could be a woman and a director. Turn to any page and you are likely to find the director speaking reverently about 19th century writers like Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen, whose works are seen as among her foundational influences, as well as the inspiration for her gothic-romance, _The Piano_. So much credit does she give to these writers that she ends up speaking of her original screenplay as if it were an adaptation of one of their works. ('If I didn't bring a 20th century perspective to [_The Piano_] I wouldn't bring anything. I would just be riding on the backs of great women.' (118)) On several occasions Campion mentions the influence of Frida Kahlo on her development as a painter, and of Diane Arbus on her photography design for her first feature, _Sweetie_.

 

Campion gives the reader an impression of enthusiastic awareness of the path laid for her by women artists of previous generations, as well as a her unapologetic determination to show what she sees as a feminine point of view: 'I can't imagine telling the story of a man. I don't know why I should either.' (5) But when asked if she calls herself a feminist she responds: 'My stance towards filming is not defined just by this challenge . . . Even if my representation of female characters has a feminist structure, this is nevertheless only one aspect of my approach.' (87)

 

This stance can't be simply explained by saying that she's an artist who naturally doesn't want to be politically pinned down, for there are other artists who are against didacticism, but still call their work 'feminist'. Chantal Ackerman, when asked about the labeling of her film, _Jeanne Dielman_, had this to say:

 

'I do think it's a feminist film because I give space to things which were never, almost never shown in that way, like the daily gestures of a woman . . . but more than the content it's because of the style. If you choose to show a woman's gestures so precisely, it's because you love them. In some ways you recognize those gestures that have always been denied and ignored.' [4]

 

As with Ackerman, looking at Campion's films it becomes evident (whatever one thinks of the stories proper) that the filmmaker is formally interested in gestures and details which are usually ignored -- especially details concerning women. Why then does Campion resist, as if it were a strict aesthetic limitation, the designation 'feminist'?

 

Though it would seem risky to treat someone of such substance as if she were a specimen, with her background in anthropology and her conscious interest in the complexities of human relationships, Campion might very well appreciate our desire to come to terms with the things about her situation that perplex us. Anyway, our efforts need not be reductive.

 

In Brecht's famous essay 'Against Georg Lukacs', he argues that the art-making process is far more complex than most theorists are willing to admit. Though he agrees that shortcomings must be acknowledged he reminds the reader that works of art fail much more easily than they succeed:

 

'One man will fall silent because of lack of feeling; another, because emotion chokes him. A third frees himself, not from the burden that weighs on him, but only from a feeling of unfreedom. A fourth breaks his tools because they have too long been used to exploit him.' [5]

 

And importantly, Brecht reminds us that *partial success* is another possibility. I mention this because the debates of the Frankfurt School relate strongly to the conflicts among feminist artists during the 1970's and into the 80's (and some would say until today). In the 70's, important debates were waged over methodology. By the mid 1980's certain distinctions had been articulated and positions divided.

 

There was art which tried to show a uniquely feminine point of view, especially by using the body in performance and by creating images inspired by female anatomy; there was art which looked at women as an isolated class -- exploring and elevating folk arts like quilting; there was art which drew from mainstream traditions without any conscious association with the feminist movement; and finally there was work which deconstructed and examined patriarchal culture. [6] The first two came to be seen as essentialist and were for the most part rejected by radical and/or materialist feminists who, for their part, made work which was often rejected for being academic, inaccessible, and un-entertaining. [7] Though feminists acknowledged the value of exposing the world to women's points of view, there was also a need to reject art, no matter who made it, if it uncritically reproduced the language of patriarchy. Understandably, certain types of speech that glorified a so-called universal-feminine, including the mysteries of feminine sexual desire, were seen as damaging to the struggle for women's equality. Consciousness raising and activism helped many women to understand that their own most personal impulses and passions actually worked against their social hopes and economic well-being. As a result, politically concerned artists, especially heterosexual women, found it necessary to maintain an intellectual distance between their felt desires and their methods for self-expression.

 

But for many this created a bind. How were feminists and women-identified artists going to find modes of speech which were pleasurable, passionate, visceral, and direct, without stupidly invoking the myths and fantasies of an ideology they knew worked against them. Ackerman continues her response to the question about _Jeanne Dielman_, shedding light on this dilemma:

 

'I think that the real problem with women's films usually has nothing to do with the content. It's that hardly any women really have confidence enough to carry through on their feelings. Instead the content is the most simple and obvious thing. They deal with that and forget to look for formal ways to express what they are and what they want, their own rhythms, their own way of looking at things. A lot of women have unconscious contempt for their feelings. But I don't think I do. I have enough confidence in myself. So that's the other reason why I think it's a feminist film -- not just what it says but what is shown and how it's shown.' [8]

 

Unlike _Jeanne Dielman_, _The Piano_, released in 1993, was not considered a feminist film. In fact, it was heavily criticized for repeating heterosexist tropes, from the muteness of woman to her exchange between men, as well as her ultimate resolution as a character through her relation to a man. At the same time, the film was also loved by huge numbers of women, who saw in it something sensuous and intensely emotionally real. Even among detractors it was agreed that Holly Hunter's character was not turned into a typical sex object and that, on the contrary, the female protagonist's desires were depicted quite directly through the camera eye.

 

In her analysis, de Lauretis expands upon Ackerman, suggesting that femininity is but one of the things that feminism can make visible, while at the same time she suggests that it might be one of the more important things: 'call them femininity and feminism; the one is made representable by the critical work of the other; the one is kept at a distance, constructed, framed, to be sure, and yet respected, loved, given space by the other. The two logics remain separate.' [9]

 

Is Campion using the logic of femininity without the logic of Feminism? How does Campion feel about female desire? Does she believe there is an essential difference between a female and a male point of view? The interviews can be studied for tentative answers to some of these questions.

 

I WANTED TO TELL A STORY ABOUT AN OBJECT.

 

Simone de Beauvoir, on 'The Young Girl':

 

'It may happen that the young girl authentically accepts this situation which she is prone to flee from in a thousand inauthentic ways. She is vexatious in her faults, but sometimes she is astonishing in her special qualities. Both have one and the same source.

 

'Her denial of the world, her restless expectation, her nothingness, she can use as a springboard to gain the heights in solitude and freedom.' [10]

 

Campion is less self-objectifying and more self-centered than de Beauvoir's 'young girl', but they seem to share the same obsessions and feelings of eccentricity:

 

'The young girl . . . is inward, disturbed, the victim of severe conflicts, but this complexity enriches her, and her inner life develops more deeply than that of her brothers, she is more attentive to her feelings and so they become more subtly diversified; she has more psychological insight than the boys have with the outward interests. She can give weight to the revolts that set her against the world. She avoids the snares of over-seriousness and conformism. The deliberate lies of her associates encounter her irony and clairvoyance. She feels daily the ambiguity of her position; beyond sterile protests she can bravely put in question official optimism, ready-made values, hypocritical and cheerful morality.' [11]

 

In _Bodies That Matter_ Judith Butler asks whether or not the 'recourse to sex is necessary in order to establish that irreducible specificity that is said to ground feminist practice'. [12] Butler creates a set of questions whose answer might be that while it is not necessary, it may still be useful -- this is because the creation of gender happens on the level of consciousness, or if you like, language -- and the subject must have recourse to the logic of her language if she hopes to elucidate its silences and change its structure or its power to structure her life. One way to investigate the language of gender is by truthfully examining relationships in order to draw out complexities. Campion's filmmaking might be mainstream but it is still interested in developing complicated situations, and is sophisticated enough not to simply reverse the problem of the gaze. This is perhaps what would lead her to say: 'Pure ideas don't take into account that there are complexities.' (110)

 

_Holy Smoke_, released *after* the publication of _Jane Campion: Interviews_, attempts to mix humor and terror to explore the interest in complexity and contradiction between feminist ideals and feminine desires. The independent-minded-but-brainwashed heroine is held captive by a dirty-old-man who is powerful enough to deprogram her, but fragile enough to fall helplessly in love with her. She remakes him in the image of a woman, just in order to teach him a lesson, to objectify him -- but when he falls in love with her power she is so disgusted (with herself) that she attempts to abandon him. There is a constant question of who is fragile and who is strong. The characters are constantly shifting from one side of power to the other.

 

Talking about the male protagonist, and her appropriation of Bunuel's 'doubling' in _The Man Who Envied Women_, Rainer explains: 'His case, from a narrative standpoint, remains unsolved, unresolved. He is never brought 'under control' as his cinematic 'wild woman' counterpart has traditionally been. That would be too utopian for my tastes.' Rainer wanted to make 'a very complicated situation'. She didn't simply want to make an 'agitprop' film: 'We get it right in some areas and in other areas we have these emotional needs and desires for autonomy and power that take various forms and may be injurious to those around us.' [13]

 

I'M A CHARLATAN WHO CAN LIVE IN THE WORLD QUITE HAPPILY.

 

In 1997 Campion tells Kennedy Fraser at _Vogue_: 'Growing up as a woman -- without power -- is very interesting. You learn to get around it. To work without power but still feel expressed. It makes you very observant.' (200) When Fraser asked her whether or not she thought women had made progress since the 'days of Henry James' her reply was: 'I don't believe in progress! . . . It's such a short life we all have. We're here only to explore our humanity. Each one of us starts at the beginning. It's not as if we can start where the ancient Greeks left off.' (199) What can we make of such a convoluted statement? Campion understands powerlessness, feels she could not be doing what she's done were it not for the work of earlier women/artists, and yet she believes that each of us starts at the beginning. It seems that Campion wants to emphasize the irrational power of desire which she thinks is universal, while she is not clear about the fact that the objects of desire, and our ways of conceptualizing desire change as the economic situation changes.

 

In spite of this frustration it's possible to accept that the same Campion who succeeds in looking at desire honestly, and who immerses herself in dense emotional terrains, is also the one who fails to gain the critical distance necessary to be suspicious of the mysteries and myths which fascinate her. She understands the specificity of power games and, like Rainer, she knows better than to opt for simple fantasies of reversal. Like Ackerman she pays attention to details which she could only care about if she truly identified with women -- but her delight in human complexity, which she claims is realist (as opposed to theoretical!?), makes her believe almost too idealistically that the 'exploration of humanity' is a universal possibility. Perhaps it would be too pessimistic to admit that many people are far too dehumanized to explore anything.

 

Butler gives us a perspective on the work of Irigaray by showing how 'Plato's Hysteria' confronts and tries to subvert the Platonic insistence that Man is different from Woman. Though Irigaray was criticized for being essentialist in her conception of a biologically derived female consciousness, Butler suggests that Irigaray's efforts might be a necessary part of a process (which also deconstructs itself) of questioning 'what is excluded from the domain of philosophy for philosophy itself to proceed'. [14]

 

Campion is preoccupied with passion. She says that her works become something else -- something outside of her -- but with the interviews we are able to see something of how a mind works which can make the kind of associations hers does. The authenticity of her films should not be judged by her biography -- however, the questions her films raise, which are questions that transcend the films themselves, happen also to be questions raised in many of these interviews. This renders the thoughts more dimensional and gives us a chance to examine them even more thoroughly. I am struck by the difference, however, between the emotions I feel when I watch, to take even the awkward _Portrait of a Lady_, as opposed to when I read what she has to say about the film. In the first instance I feel I am being touched by something. There are visual questions simply not as richly expressed by Campion when she speaks -- to read her description of the camera holding on the china cup is not the same as to see it. Campion's camera shows an insistent respect for the integrity of people and things, along with a sort of reverie for living-goofiness that is more convincing than her own verbal explanations. One is tempted to say that she has a more nuanced understanding of gender and representation than she *claims* to have -- and that this understanding finds expression through the socially complex activity of directing movies.

 

In what is perhaps her most accurate and ambiguous utterance in the book, asked how she relates to her heroines Campion has this to say:

 

'I don't think I project my fantasies in these characters, and in any case I don't know who I am. We are what we do. On the other hand, I have a lot of tenderness for them, even if none of them represent me . . . What is a part of me is a certain sense of the absolute and a desire to control things. I always had trouble understanding the separation between myself and the world; the mystery of sexuality, of hate, of passions, has always been a problem.' (110)

 

Brooklyn, New York, USA

 

 

Notes

 

1. But it's interesting to note that in a book of the same series, _Steven Soderbergh: Interviews_, neither the word 'autobiography' or 'collaboration' is indexed.

 

2. In a search of over 250 books of interviews with directors I was unable to find another devoted entirely to one female filmmaker. The closest were a book of Duras's interviews (though in her capacity as a novelist) and a book about Yvonne Rainer which was not devoted entirely to interviews.

 

3. See chapter 'The Formative Years: The Young Girl' in Simone de Beauvoir, _The Second Sex_ [1952], trans. H. M. Parshley (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), pp 368-369.

 

4. Ackerman, 'Chantal Ackerman on _Jeanne Dielman_', _Camera Obscura_, no. 2, 1977, pp. 118-119. Quoted in Theresa de Lauretis, _Technologies of Gender_ (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987), p. 132.

 

5. Bertolt Brecht, 'Against Georg Lukacs' [1938] in _Aesthetics and Politics_ (London: NLB, 1977), p. 74.

 

6. See Section IV, 'Strategies of Feminism', in _Framing Feminism: Art and the Women's Movement 1970-85_. Edited by Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock. (London: Pandora, 1987). Especially see: Mary Kelly, 'On sexual politics and art', (pp. 303-312) and Judith Barry and Sandy Flitterman, 'textual strategies: the politics of art making', (pp. 313 -- 320).

 

7. Ibid.

 

8. Ackerman, 'Chantal Ackerman on _Jeanne Dielman_', p. 119.

 

9. de Lauretis, _Technologies of Gender_, p.132

 

10. de Beauvoir, _The Second Sex_, p. 359.

 

11. Ibid., p. 360.

 

12. Judith Butler, _Bodies that Matter: The Discursive Limits of Sex_ (New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 29.

 

13. Yvonne Rainer, _The Films of Rainer_ (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989), p. 43.

 

14. Butler, _Bodies that Matter_, p. 29.

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2004

 

 

Cara O'Connor, 'A Certain Sense of the Absolute and the Desire to Control Things: _Jane Campion: Interviews_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 14, April 2004 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol8-2004/n14oconnor>.

 

 

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