In this three part essay, Susan Thomson explores violence and political struggle in moving image and film work shown by AEMI (Artists’ And Experimental Moving Image) in Ireland, at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) in London and at other international film festivals. In the second part, Restoration, she looks at the politics of film restoration and takes us through a close reading of Chick Strand’s Soft Fiction (1978) within the context of the #MeToo movement.
Theory was literally a political weapon
–Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure at 40: Laura Mulvey in discussion, BFI
It’s that tenacity, that kind of spirit that I’m really enamoured of…To turn it around and not to have been victimized. I mean it doesn’t erase the thing, but if you come out whole, if you come out no longer the victim in your own mind, then that’s great…I see many, the woman with the suitcase (in Soft Fiction), the woman on the train and the woman behind the waterfall at the end, as the traveller, the woman on a journey, the woman completing it all, the woman coming out the other end whole…and more than whole, with the addition of coping with experience and making it constructive.
–Chick Strand speaking at the Cinematheque 1980 Irena Leimbacher in ‘An Introduction to Chick Strand’
Looking through the lens of modern political concerns, there has been an unearthing of archive, reworked and reconstructed in new films, as well as older films that have been restored or rescreened. Soft Fiction (1978) directed by Chick Strand, screened by AEMI in 2018 at IFI, Dublin, and curated by LUX, is both a literal and figurative restoration. Recently restored by ColorLab in Maryland, it received its European premiere at the Tate Modern in 2015. All Chick Strand’s principal films have been restored by various labs now, in what is perhaps a part of a newfound respect for the art and film of women, both past and present.
From the beginning of anthropological film, Nanook of the North (1922) there have been questions over its supposed realism, and the merging of documentary and the staged. The title ‘Soft Fiction’ presents this as a conscious part of the film, rather than something to be disavowed. Soft Fiction (1978) is lyrical, symbolic, abstract at times; a languorous and visceral piece of black and white, 16mm filmmaking. Since Strand’s death in 2009, her reputation has begun to grow beyond the success she experienced during her lifetime. A West Coast filmmaker, she was joint founder of the Canyon Cinema cooperative with her partner Bruce Baillie in 1961, a crucial focal point for avant-garde filmmakers and their films, and still in existence today. In Soft Fiction Strand shoots a series of interviews with women, through a telephoto lens in extreme closeup, and later interweaves these with surreal and symbolic scenes (Strand in fact identified as a Surrealist). While it is said that Strand did not identify with the Women’s Movement, there clearly are influences, not least the personal as political or her disbelief in objectivity, seeing instead, and preferring, degrees of subjectivity. At the time of making the film, deconstructing the authoritative, anthropological, scientific, male gaze – a colonial approach – must have seemed imperative. Now it is interesting both because this film feels like an unseen masterpiece, and because of its relevance to the #MeToo movement. Strand talks in her writing ‘Woman as Ethnographic Filmmaker’ of how rarely women have been the ‘stars’ of ethnographic films, and the importance of female to female communication within both anthropology and filmmaking. Soft Fiction does indeed get up close and personal, both to the bodies and the minds of its subjects, and creates a more non-hierarchical relationship than usual between filmmaker and interviewees.
The film features a series of autobiographical stories, increasingly harrowing, of sexual violence towards all the women who speak – from encounters which begin as consensual, and then veer into non-consensual territory, to stories of adult-child abuse, incest, and even, at the end of the film, fascism. At the beginning, the film is mesmerizing: the abstract lines of a train moving while a female voiceover asks you to relax your body as if attempting hypnosis. This slow descent into the dream of the film evoked for me Andrei Tarkovsky’s long motorway drive in Solaris (1972) which appears to symbolically take the characters into space; Chantal Akerman’s Je, Tu, Il, Elle (1974) (screened by Film Qlub in Dublin in 2014) where the drive in a lorry leads the film into new territory symbolically; or even Lars Von Trier’s much later use of this hypnosis technique plus train journey to open a film, as we land in World War Two in Europa (1991). Following this hypnotic introduction in Soft Fiction, the camera begins to explore the space of the interior of the house and all its rooms, but not in the static, framed way of an Akerman film, but instead with a seemingly mobile, handheld camera which appears to search the house for its first interviewee, before eventually finding a woman upstairs, smoking, while back downstairs, light pours in through the window, reflecting on glasses by the sink. This is followed by extreme close-ups of faces, body parts and abstract imagery, and by a woman knocking repeatedly at the door and windows of the house, trying to get in. Not a glass ceiling then, but glass as obstacle nonetheless, a sense of being outside oneself, split off. Rain pours down the windows, sensual and sexual, and this fluid, material sensibility can be found in a number of Strand’s other films such as Fake Fruit Factory (1986), which features dripping, erotic scenes of the making of artificial fruit from papier-mâché, as well as later in Soft Fiction where a naked interviewee places a fork into a fried egg. A woman speaks of her desire to become a railing she has seen in a gallery, an old-fashioned, extensive bending system which she describes in loving and offbeat detail – the metallic colours, rich and warm, brass, copper, some gold, an S shape curve, and other curves which turn in on themselves, in circular fashion. She describes her desire to move through the world in a curve – a feminist statement if ever there was one. The comedy or surrealism of this image has a darker undertone however, suggestive of a kind of dissociation in the wish to become a part of the building. The stories explore and explode notions of inside and outside the house, about safety and danger.
A woman reads a letter about sex with cowboys at a rodeo, which she reads laughingly, but it is clear that the episode becomes increasingly non-consensual, the writer having been tricked into a sexual scenario through the device of the cowboys asking her to take their picture. It ends with bargaining with the men, offering various sexual scenarios in order to get ‘safely’ out of the situation. She analyses the letter-writer’s handwriting, noting, as the story she’s telling moves into darker terrain, “…she makes a mistake here on the capital ‘I’” and then again “…another big mistake on the ‘I’”. The friend’s subjectivity is deformed in language, her ‘I’ performs a linguistic and existential distortion. Filmmaking is implicated or invoked, is part of the sexual scenario, and the men make threats also towards her camera, before she finally escapes. In the next scene, with another interviewee, who listens to the radio, featuring a collage of sounds – a steam train, voices, chanting – as she makes tea and cooks eggs, naked, while telling of child abuse she suffered. This is followed by an interviewee recounting a heroin and love addiction, which she ended by exorcising him, she says. In a dream-like image or psychoanalytic metaphor a woman in the garden now attempts to walk up some stairs and all the contents of her suitcase fall out. She begins to pick up the clothes and replace them.
The last story is the most powerful of all. A woman recounts how she was forced as a young girl, to sit on a Nazi’s knee, at the time of the second world war, and to flirt with him in order to draw attention away from those they were concealing – a neighbour had told the Gestapo that they were hiding Jews in the house. She recounts from memory – they all went for a walk, there were fires on the hill, something bad happening beyond, and then, she says, there is a blank. The film cuts to images of a woman’s face behind water, showering, her face reflected and divided by the water. We think of gas chambers, showers, the film cuts to someone walking along sand as the film gives us time to digest this, and meanwhile the trains at the beginning of the film take on a new significance. Here the film resembles Akerman’s work most closely. And here, the softness of memory gives way to a lacuna. We never discover what happened. This last interviewee is in fact a professional actor, though it is her own story she is enacting. The film ends with a woman horseriding bareback, an overt symbol of a free and unrestrained sexuality, a utopian vision, or a reality after healing – the life force in the face of destruction. The film perhaps lacks the moral clarity of current feminist views of sexual harassment and abuse, but it nonetheless stages, as Marsha Kinder writes in an article in Film Quarterly, a repeated encounter with death, with the forces of destruction, in the form of a human male other, a kind of archetypal journey. The opera track which plays in the house at the beginning of the film, as the camera looks for the first protagonist, is revealed, as if peeling away a filmic layer, uncovering the covering up which often occurs in an edit; later on we see that it is a live performance of ‘Death and the Maiden’, as non-diegetic sound transforms seamlessly into diegetic.
The empathy of the subjectivity of the filmmaker, her identification with her interviewees, makes it #MeToo before the time. ‘Soft’ fiction, though hard to watch; the soft seems to refer to a certain femininity, emotional vulnerability and lyricism, that counterpoints the horror of some of the subject matter. It also references the soft edges of memory, and the difficulties of recalling details around traumatic memory. This insistence on subjectivity in Strand’s anthropological films is reminiscent too of Trinh T. Minh-ha who also uses spatial motifs to describe her filmmaking methods, and in her film Reassemblage (1982) talks of ‘not speaking about (the subject) but of ‘speaking nearby.’ Strand speaks of the space ‘in between’, and this liminal space recurs in the edit, in the juxtapositions and unusual combinations. This more empathetic strategy of filmmaking is used in Strand’s work, maybe even to a greater extent than in Minh-ha’s, but clearly she has also been influenced by Laura Mulvey’s seminal 1973 essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, which articulates the concept of the male gaze and deconstructs the typical pleasures of conventional cinema going. Strand is not interested in reperforming the objectification of the female subject, but instead in various attempts to circumnavigate this, to choose other positions as a filmmaker. This position rejects the possibility of the objectivity of filmmaker, in favour of more intuitive, bodily approaches where the camera is more of an extension of the body, and within the film, a reclamation by women of their own spoken, personal narratives. In the close-ups favoured by Strand, there is an echo of the intimacy inherent in the films themselves. At the same time though, there is a perhaps deliberate distancing effect; she states in an interview that in the editing process she often tried to view her footage as if it were found footage. We can see her influences too on contemporary anthropological filmmaking such as the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab – immersive films like Leviathan (2012) (on board a fishing boat) or the more post-structuralist Manakamana (2013) (journeys up a pilgrimage mountainside in a cable car), which can give the viewer the feeling of having almost been to that place, a kind of implanted cinematic memory.
Soft Fiction was screened in the IFI alongside And Under That, directed by Anne- Marie Copestake. While the two films share a preoccupation with memory, it did not serve for me anyway as a satisfying counterpoint, and only highlighted the aesthetic differences between video and film. I would have preferred to have seen Soft Fiction screened alongside shorter Strand films, as it was in 2015 at the Tate Modern, or with a contemporary moving image work that more vociferously addressed current strands of feminist thinking and activism.
It is not then only mainstream classics which are being restored – here we have an example of an experimental, female-centred film. Women filmmakers are finally beginning to be accorded more respect, and this can be seen in restorations such as this which preserves an important part of women’s, and all, cinema history. Nonetheless this particular film is, as well as being many other things, also an American, white, heteronormative piece. Restoration must be intersectional too.
In the technique of film restoration, the first step is scanning, a doubling of the original film, before it is then transferred to 4K, followed by digital manipulation to get rid of scratches, mould, damage and so on. The digital software is able to paint through to the frame the restorer wants, to take details for example from other frames that are undamaged –thereby using the past or present of the film to repair itself. This has potentially interesting philosophical implications, in that the remastered film might now have a very different relationship to its own timeline, its own sense of time. Time is rendered complex, the past infused with a future it never knew, and which makes the past anew. It could be seen too as a metaphor for healing – in life, using memory or new experience (past or future) to repair the present moment. Time destroys and time repairs. In addition, the restored film, however much it resembles the original as it was when newly created, can never be self-identical, and is instead always a hybrid – of past and present, of film and digital.
And so to conclude with an example from the past – some sobering statistics on women in cinema to give perspective: Before 1925 half of screenwriters were women; in fact women had more opportunities in the film industry prior to World War One than they do currently. This was before film really took off as an industry, and film itself was in its experimental, first flush, the era of silent cinema, and also still much more the preserve of misfits, outsiders, Jewish people, women than now. There is much to restore here.