"Dangerous" Cinematic Women Studies

The above is a short video primer by Catherine Grant. It offers an audiovisual introduction to issues of gender, sexuality and movement in relation to Rita Hayworth‘s performance as Gilda in Charles Vidor‘s 1946 film.
The femme fatale is a product of the male imaginary, which emerges in literature and the visual arts under contingent socio-political conditions as a challenge to coherent and stable identities. […]
     The emergence of the femme fatale motif in literature, art and cinema generally coincides with periods of social or political instability and is not specific to a culture, society or era, but exhibits countless masks as she may manifest herself in diverse historical or geo-political contexts, and through a variety of artistic and literary forms. She embodies traces of a myriad of powerful, as well as menacing, historical, biblical and mythical female figures, such as Cleopatra, Salome, or the Sirens; yet this wicked and barren creature is always imbued with an alluring beauty and rapacious sexuality that is potentially deadly to man. The femme fatale figure is a recurrent patriarchal construct, a projection of all that exists beyond that which is normal, familiar, or safe. As Rebecca Stott observes, she is a multiple sign, or ‘the Other around whom the qualities of all Other collect in the male imagination’ (1992: 39). As such, her appearances are always symptomatic of a society in crisis.
[Eva Bru-Domínguez, ‘The Body as a Conflation of Discourses: The femme fatale in Mercè Rodoreda’s Mirall trencat‘ (1974)’, Journal of Catalan Studies 2009]
[I]s it possible that the tangled webs of violence, sexuality, pathology, and intrigue at the core of certain film noir offer moments of reversal and exception which challenge women’s role as eternal victim? How is an anti-feminist backlash or male anxiety around women’s power projected into these paranoid film scenarios? To what extent can such disruptions be contained through conventional “happy family” closure – or through the violent death of the (anti-)heroine whose glittering image lingers as the credits rolls? Working against the inescapable grain of the “repressive rule” of female victimhood, I choose here to seize on the exceptional figure of the “fatale femme.” While the exception may help define the rule, she also keeps alive the possibility, the inevitability, of transformation in gendered relations of power. [Julianne Pidduck, The “fatal femme” in contemporary Hollywood film noir: reframing gender, violence, and power, Masters Thesis, Concordia University, 1993: 6-7]

Rather than promoting images of women that emphasize their spirit and unknowable power, and rather than promoting images of women that rely on their bodies, finally, we need to illustrate the contexts that inform women’s experience. I want to suggest some of the reasons why we’ve grown accustomed to identifying film noir’s “femme fatale” without examining these contexts that inform her presence in film noir, by doing just that: examining the settings—social, psychological, political, physical, and geographical—that define her experience, which is, I want strongly to suggest, a far better thing to define than “woman” herself.
     This study seeks to modify the tone of feminist discussions about film noir’s women by reorienting our attention to the narrative, social contexts, and mise-en-scene that show the relationship between women’s powers and the limits placed on them by social rules. Both the view of the “femme fatale” as misogynist projection and the view of the “femme fatale” as opaque yet transgressive female force emphasize her status as object or symbol (as object of scorn or as the mysterious and opaque “other” that threatens to destroy the male subject). My aim is to adjust our focus on film noir and gender so that we illuminate these women’s narratives rather than mystifying women as objects or images.
[Julie Grossman, Rethinking the Femme Fatale in Film Noir: Ready for Her Close-Up (London: Palgrave/BFI, 2009): 5. Book info.]

Film Studies For Free wishes its reader a very happy International Women’s Day with a varied curatorial selection of online scholarly work touching on possibly the most studied ‘object’ in all of feminist film theory: the ‘dangerous’ woman, sometimes fatal, sometimes a fatality…

If you are a film goer you know her kind. She is attractive, alluring, enigmatic, enticing, teasing, siren-like. Totally tautological. You might come across her dancing in a cinematic cabaret or show, smoking in a private detective’s office, gracing a film noir alleyway, or haunting a difficult to decipher flashback. Or turning up like a beautiful but bad penny, provoking your scopophilia (and/or your epistemophilia), just about anywhere in almost every period of international film history.

Just what is it about these cinematic women? There certainly isn’t one answer to that question, but the studies linked to below might very well help you to begin to tackle it.

If there are any important online resources that FSFF has missed, please do list them in the comments thread.

Vertigoed! The film scholarly value of mash-up?

Last updated January 20, 2012

A psychosexually obsessed man wanders the streets of 1950s San Francisco; he spies [on] seemingly unavailable blonde women; he makes a woman fall from a height; she drops into water; the scene is filled with circle imagery, especially circles within circles…..  [See the original sequence]

As Film Studies For Free‘s readers may have heard, Kim Novak, co-star of Vertigo, took out an ad in trade magazine Variety to protest about the recent use of an excerpt from Bernard Herrmann‘s score for Alfred Hitchcock‘s 1958 film in Michel Hazanavicius’s 2011 modern silent film The Artist. “I want to report a rape,” went the headline. “I feel as if my body – or at least my body of work — has been violated by the movie, The Artist,” Novak wrote. She went on to criticise the “use and abuse [of] famous pieces of work to gain attention and applause for other than what they were intended.”

There was quite a strong international reaction to Novak’s intervention. Some were dismayed by her recourse to the lexicon of rape; others were more sympathetic to her stance and background as someone very much not from the digital age of remix and creative appropriation; still others remind us that, in ‘Scene d’Amour’, the musical Vertigo theme in question, Herrmann was, of course, inspirationally reworking some of Richard Wagner‘s motifs from his Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal. Good artists copy; great artists steal?

Enter the story the PRESS PLAY blog which launched a contest inviting readers to re-use Herrmann’s “Scene d’Amour” music in their own mash-up, inspired by the idea that “Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score is so passionate and powerful that it can elevate an already good scene — and a familiar one at that — to a higher plane of expression.”

Film Studies For Free‘s author was only too happy to have a go, joining the legions of those who, like Hazanavicius, have used Herrmann’s music in their work, in large or very small ways. Her choice of film sequence? One borrowed from The Sniper, Edward Dmytryk‘s 1952 film noir, with its own, obsessed, wandering male protagonist and San Francisco setting.

The Sniper was one of the films that probably directly inspired Vertigo, as well as Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho — see critic Dave Kehr’s thoughts on this. The above mash-up chooses, then, to marry Herrmann’s lush Wagnerian romance with the key ‘amusement park’ sequence from Dmytryk’s brilliant film, with its astonishing performance of overt misogyny by Arthur Franz as Edward “Eddie” Miller — perhaps the perfect, filmic, mirror-image of James Stewart‘s unforgettable, unconsciously misogynist, John “Scottie” Ferguson.

FSFF‘s author was excited to experience at first-hand the scholarly possibilities of remixing film clips in this way (the contest rules state that the original film sequence cannot be re-edited in any way — except, if you choose to, by removing its sound — in order not to cheat with the creative re-juxtaposition process).

Remixing is an astonishingly good (and amazingly easy) way of really — almost literally — getting inside a film sequence. It is thus a truly great exercise for all students of film with access to the right digital tools. Analysing just how the mash-up adapts the meaning of the original music and original sequence is rather educational and fun, too!

If you get your skates on with the Vertigo score exercise, there are still three days left for Press Play’s contest entries. Click here to watch the (over 60) entries at present.

FSFF‘s favorite entry to the contest, so far, is a mash-up which, rather like its own, plays on the conscious or unconscious connections between an earlier film and Vertigo. It’s Matthew Cheney‘s wonderful work with Mädchen in Uniform (the brilliant 1931 film by Leontine Sagan). But there are loads of other imaginative and highly satisfying remixes that you will enjoy checking out. UPDATE: the videographic legend that is Steven Boone just added a late Vertigoed entry which is FSFF‘s new favourite: a scene from Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

If you want to see even more brilliant, Vertigo mash-up work — actually, a work of remix in a completely different, utterly sublime class — you simply must check out The Vertigo Variations by remarkable critic-filmmaker B. Kite.

And, for more vertiginous sublimity, don’t forget FSFF‘s very own Study of a Single Film: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo entry.

The mash up video at the top of the post was made according to principles of Fair Use/Fair Dealing, with non-commercial scholarly and critical aims, and was published under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License in January 2012. 

>Studies of Film Noirishness, with Love

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50+ new links added on February 27, 2011
The above is a short video primer by Catherine Grant. It offers an audiovisual introduction to issues of gender, sexuality and movement in relation to Rita Hayworth‘s performance as Gilda in Charles Vidor‘s 1946 film.

[blip.tv http://blip.tv/play/AYHPrzIC%5D

Film Studies For Free is delighted to present its own contribution to the remarkable fundraising effort for the Film Noir Foundation that has been taking place in the last week, namely the For the Love of Film (Noir) Blog-a-thon, organised by film critics Farran Smith Nehme (Self-Styled Siren) and Marilyn Ferdinand (of Ferdy on Film).

Awed by the contributions so far, FSFF proffers (above) a little video-primer on its favourite noir – Gilda – together with a reposting of Matt Zoller Seitz’s fabulous audiovisual essay on The Prowler (also above), and a whole host of direct links (below) to openly accessible scholarly reading and viewing on Film Noir, and on all varieties of Neo-Noir, too – taken altogether, some of the most essential of film studies topics.

The Film Noir Foundation works to preserve and restore movies in its chosen mode from many eras and from many countries. The film nominated to be restored with monies raised this year is a fine and important noir called The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me) directed by Cy Endfield (1914–1995).

One of the resources FSFF links to is an excellent interview with Endfield, conducted in 1989 by Brian Neve, in which he discusses that film in the context of his career as a whole and the historical events which formed the background to his work. Here’s what Endfield concludes about The Sound of Fury.

I consider that my talent for making pictures was best expressed in two pictures, Zulu and The Sound of Fury. I think the one big talent I have is to make big pictures. There is a sense of structure about something of dimension that I have found lacking even in pictures that were supposed to be big. […] The Sound of Fury was made mostly from my blood circulation and nervous system. 

FSFF knows that feeling only too well! It can’t wait to see the restored film. So, please, if you love Film Noir, join this blog‘s author in donating some of your hard-earned dough (or even some of your ill-begotten gains…) on this occasion. Just click here. Thank you!

                    Note: The first video essay (by Catherine Grant) embedded at the top of this post was made according to principles of Fair Use/Fair Dealing, primarily with scholarly and critical aims, and was published under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 License in February 2011. If you found this video or FSFF‘s Film Noir entry useful or enjoyable, please consider supporting with a donation the valuable work of the Film Noir Foundation. Thank you.

                      >For the Love of Film (Noir)

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                      This time last year, Film Studies For Free was thrilled to support the For the Love of Film Preservation fund-raising blogathon organised by peerless, online, film critics Farran Smith Nehme (Self-Styled Siren) and Marilyn Ferdinand (of Ferdy on Film).

                      The grand total of money raised for film preservation last year was more than $30,000 in contributions and matching funds; those funds saved films through the National Film Preservation Foundation.

                      This year, the chosen theme for the blogathon is Film Noir, so you can expect many fine entries on that topic to be appearing all over the film internets in the immediate aftermath of Valentine’s Day.

                      Donations will go to the Film Noir Foundation, which works to preserve and restore movies in this mode from many eras and from many countries. The film to be restored this year is a fine and important noir called The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me) directed by Cy Endfield, possibly more well-known (if not better remembered) for Zulu (1964).

                      As Marilyn Ferdinand writes:

                      A nitrate print of [Endfield’s] film will be restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, using a reference print from Martin Scorsese’s personal collection to guide them and fill in any blanks. Paramount Pictures has agreed to help fund the restoration, but FNF is going to have to come up with significant funds to get the job done. That’s where we come in.

                      Do check out the wonderful promotional trailer for the event created by Greg Ferrara of Cinemastyles, who also made the e-poster above. The blogathon Facebook page is here. Also, please make sure to visit the all-important donation link.

                      And do watch out for a further, snazzy entry on film noir by FSFF, in upcoming weeks, as its own original contribution to the whole shebang…

                      >The Hollywood Left and the Blacklist Era

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                      [blip.tv http://blip.tv/play/AYHPrzIC%5D Private Property – Joseph Losey’s The Prowler by Matt Zoller Seitz 

                      at The L Magazine, March 2010
                      (also see Justin Stewart’s essay on this film in the same issue)

                      A ghost town also frames the haunting final scenes of Joseph Losey‘s The Prowler, when an adulterous couple (Evelyn Keyes and Van Heflin) take refuge in an abandoned Mojave desert village so that the woman can secretly give birth to their child. Webb killed Susan Gilvray’s husband, successfully making it look like an accident, and he fears that proof of their affair will put him under suspicion.

                      He’s a shady, disaffected cop who first meets Susan when he responds to her report of a prowler. She’s a lonely housewife whose husband is an all-night DJ, a disembodied voice on the radio, unable to provide her with the child she craves. Webb takes one look at the wistful blonde and her luxurious Spanish-style suburban palace and decides he wants both. Reluctantly Susan succumbs to his aggressive persistence, as he keeps turning up to investigate an imaginary intruder, finally gunning down her husband, ostensibly by mistake. Fragile and passive, Susan believes Webb’s story and marries him; their wedding is mirrored by a funeral at the church across the street.

                      Isolated in the desert ruin, Susan struggles through a difficult labor. The refuge turns deadly, with dust storms raging, and in desperation Webb finally fetches a doctor to save his wife, and she learns the truth about him when she realizes he plans to kill the man who saved her. The setting is appropriate: though they conceived a child, their relationship built on greed and deception is more barren than Susan’s first, childless marriage.   Imogen Sara Smith, ‘In Lonely Places: Film Noir Outside the City’, Bright Lights Film Journal, Issue 65, August 2009 [my emphasis]

                      Film Studies For Free, a born “fellow traveller” blog if ever there was one, today brings you some choice links to high quality material pertaining to the study of the Hollywood Blacklist era.

                      The post begins with Matt Zoller Seitz‘s latest video essay – a wonderful dissection of Joseph Losey‘s 1951 film noir thriller The Prowler. This was one of the last films Losey made in Hollywood before fleeing the US, refusing to inform on his friends to the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Zoller Seitz compellingly teases out The Prowler‘s concerns with social class and property; these would become even more central themes in Losey’s film work after his exile to England.  

                      New Brights Lights Film Journal

                      A quick post to begin the blogging week: Film Studies For Free is delighted to flag up that Issue 66 of Bright Lights Film Journal is now online. Below are all the relevant links. There are some very good articles, written as always in BLFJ‘s entertaining, but still scholarly-critical, house style, including ones on Polanski, Chaplin, Delphine Seyrig, Kubrick, Tarantino, and a great interview with Jonas Mekas. Keep up with Bright Lights between issues by visiting its companion blog, Bright Lights After Dark. Those of you on Twitter might also like to follow the BLF Journal  @blfj

                      From the editor
                      Articles
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