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Responsive Eyes and Crossing Lines:
Forty Years of Looking and Reading 


Helen Grace

 

 

I’m a little dizzy and my eyes are very stimulated after watching it.

– actress Pamela Tiffin, responding to Op Art exhibition, The Responsive Eye, at Museum of Modern Art (New York), February 1965; interviewed in Brian De Palma’s 1966 documentary of the same name.

   

   

Brigitte Bardot rehearsing scene in Les femmes (Jean Aurel, 1969), on location in Italy (Image source: AFP).

   

Episode 1: Campus of Regional Australian University, February 1973

The Students’ Representative Council (SRC) has arranged a stripper to entertain the new students for Orientation Week, initiating them into the ways in which boys will be boys – and girls will come to be regarded by them in a liberated society. Although this is the first year of the abolition of university fees in Australia, and 36% of students are female, the figure of the undergraduate is still predominantly male and it is his gaze that is addressed and entertained. (1) In these innocent years before anti-discrimination and affirmative action legislation takes the fun (although it was never fun for everyone) out of these apparently innocent entertainments in the name of social improvement and gender equity, student politics is still decidedly masculine – and under threat.

 

 

 

1. Between 1960 and 1975, university student numbers in Australia trebled. See Higher Education Students: Time Series Tables – Selected Higher Education Statistics, 2000 (DETYA, 2001).


She arrives in a new HQ Monaro GTS350 Coupe with body stripe ornamentation – considered at the time one of the best looking body designs to come from an Australian producer. (2) This fact is later used as evidence that she is not an exploited worker, but rather an economically independent woman who has freely chosen the occupation of stripper. How else could a female worker in 1973 expect to own a new car in her own right? (3) The on-campus Women’s Liberation group I’m involved in plans to intervene in the proceedings, objecting to the objectification of women; the open-air stage is surrounded by students, packed-in tightly – to get what used to be called ‘a good look’ (before feminist film theory challenged the innocence of the activity). The show begins, and Elizabeth (let’s call her this) has barely removed her first glove, when the action suddenly stops. The feminists have seized control of the power point and turned off the music. A flick of a switch soon rectifies the situation but, before long, the music stops again, and does so several times more before a few hefty guards are posted next to the plug to keep the feminists away.

 

The momentum of the performance is lost by this time, and the student crowd is howling for naked flesh. Meanwhile, the feminists, having been forcibly prevented from spoiling the fun, decide upon another line of attack. They, too, want to see naked flesh, and want to register – by the manner in which they insist upon having their naked flesh – their view of the coercion that they believe is involved in the practices of spectacularising women. A group of them locates the hippy entrepreneur/SRC organiser of the event in the middle of the crowd, where he is watching Elizabeth and clearly enjoying the sight. They set upon him, beginning to remove his clothes; although he is widely known as a campus stud not averse to the use of a little force of persuasion when a girl doesn’t know what she wants, he is sure that he knows what he doesn’t want.

 

2. On the topic of women and cars, see Margaret Dodd’s short film This Woman is Not a Car (Australia, 1982).

3. Although women were granted the vote in Australia in 1901, female basic wages were set at 54% of male wages at the beginning of Federation, and male rates were set at a level thought to be sufficient to support a wife and three children. In 1973, women earned 70% on average of men’s wages; the full flow-on effect of the Federal Arbitration Commission’s 1969, 1972 and 1974 decisions on equal pay for work of equal value had not yet occurred.  

 

 

 


Suddenly terrified that a fate worse than death awaits him, he calls in reinforcements; his honour is quickly defended by a group of friends from the rugby club who intervene to beat off the feminists. The altercation provides another interruption to the rhythm of Elizabeth’s performance, a distraction from the main attraction, which consequently becomes somewhat desultory. When it is over and the job is done, she wastes little time sliding into her Monaro and driving away. For several weeks after the event, the feminists involved report stories of harassment and physical violence directed towards them on the campus. But, subsequently, strippers cease to be scheduled for Orientation Week activities and student politics becomes more serious.

 

***

   

   

Rosalie Bognor and Merle Thornton chained to public bar, Regatta Hotel, Brisbane, 1965.
(Image source: The Courier Mail)

   

Episode 2: Masonic Club, Regional City, Australia 1974

   

 

I’m speechless.

- Final words (in voice-over), The Responsive Eye (De Palma, 1966)

   

It was always easy to point to the interdictory actions of feminists as evidence of humourlessness; and yet there were many other occasions when men seemed to lack a sense of humour, with no-one ever saying that they were humourless.

 

***

   

Women were excluded from the public bar at the local Masonic Club, which also served as the journalists’ club, opposite the local newspaper’s main office. (4) She had gone to drink in the lounge there with a group of journalist friends; in the course of the conversation, they pointed towards a door, indicating that no woman had ever entered the room that lay beyond. In those days, to be told such a thing was like an offer that could not be refused: the space beyond the door seemed like the New World for Christopher Columbus – to enter such a space, one felt like an astronaut stepping outside a spacecraft. ‘Give me five dollars’, she said, ‘and I’ll do it!’ Her friend never considered for a single moment that he stood a chance of losing his money, because it was impossible for him to imagine that a woman could walk through this door, this impassable barrier that separated women and men, this barrier of difference itself.

 

 

4. This casual link between the media and a particular private club in a regional city is part of a longer history of social networking in Australia that did not only exclude women.

 

 


A door is a very ordinary thing: if you turn the handle, it opens. But there are many doors that cannot be opened, for various reasons, and at different times the reasons themselves collapse and cease to be plausible. This was one of those occasions, at a time when such lines were being crossed. Without too much hesitation, she walked to the door, opened it and entered the sacred space where no woman had ever been before.

 

She was not bathed in a beam of light, angels did not sing; the room was just as banal as the door she had opened and the lounge she had left. Men sat at the bar, or at tables, talking, drinking; nothing secret or mysterious appeared to be happening in this room; nor did the floor open up and swallow her for her evil deed. Nothing was happening. And yet she could feel that something was amiss. The space had been violated. She was like a stain on the carpet that had suddenly appeared, as if someone had smashed a bottle of red wine. She went up to the bar and asked for a drink, but the bartender pretended she wasn’t there; she approached a man she knew well and began to speak to him, but he appeared not to see her.

   

It was as if she had entered a foreign land and did not speak the language or, rather, she had fallen into a space between languages. In the silence created by her presence – no-one said anything, no-one told her she should not be there, no-one told her to leave – it was as if she had walked naked into a room in which all the men’s tongues had been cut out, so that they could not speak; although they could see her, their eyes were somehow not working. In attempting to cross this invisible line, it was as if her presence had caused a very strange paralysis, and she had come face to face with the other side of striptease. She didn’t need Lacan to state the bleeding obvious: ‘You never look at me from the place from which I see you’. (5)

 

***


Is it not precisely because desire is established here in the domain of seeing that we can make it vanish? (6)


***

 

 

 

 

5. Jacques Lacan (trans. Alan Sheridan), ‘The Line and Light’, in Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (London: Penguin, 1979), p. 96.  

6. Ibid., ‘Anamorphosis’, p. 81.


   

Episode 3: London, November 1980

Some women wanted to reclaim the night, to turn it into the cold hard light of day. Some of us were happy with the night and we wanted it to stay.

 

***

 

When Brian De Palma’s movie Dressed to Kill was released in London in autumn 1980, groups of feminists staged a campaign of terror against it, by entering cinemas through the exits and spray-painting the screen with red paint. These actions followed the lead of American groups, such as Women Against Violence Against Women and Women Against Pornography, who had conducted similar interventions in Boston, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco weeks earlier.

   

Although the actions directed against Dressed to Kill could be represented as repressive in the non-official censorship they seemed to imply, there was also a generative dimension to the energy released in the protests. In his study of ‘citizen censorship’, Charles Lyons, for example, argues that censorship can be a ‘strategy of empowerment’, allowing historically marginalised groups to gain some control over the ways in which they are represented. (7) Activist feminists were not, however, alone in their attacks on De Palma at this time. Some prominent film journals supported the anti-De Palma actions, with Jump Cut publishing a leaflet from the San Francisco-based group, Women Against Violence and Pornography in Media, that appeared the same time as the British actions were occurring. Dressed to Kill was declared to be a ‘master work of misogyny’, and, rising to the form of its activist leaflet style, it concluded, IF THIS FILM SUCCEEDS, KILLING WOMEN MAY BECOME THE GREATEST TURN-ON OF THE EIGHTIES. (8)

 

Some critics were less concerned, seeing as much humour as horror in the film. For example, Pauline Kael in The New Yorker wrote:

What makes Dressed To Kill funny is that it’s permeated with the distilled essence of impure thoughts. De Palma has perfected a near-surreal poetic voyeurism – the stylized expression of a blissfully dirty mind. (9)

 

 

 

7. Charles Lyons, The New Censors: Movies and the Culture Wars (Temple University Press, 1997), p. 55.  

8. Dressed to Kill protested’, Jump Cut, No. 23 (October 1980), p. 32.

9. Pauline Kael, ‘Master Spy, Master Seducer’, The New Yorker (August 4, 1980), cited in Giovanna Asselle & Behroze Gandhy, ‘Dressed to Kill’, Screen, Vol 23 No 3/4 (1982), pp. 137-143. Kael’s review is reprinted in her 1984 collection Taking It All In (New York: Henry Holt & Co.).


The De Palma controversy intensified four years later with the release of Body Double (1984), which attracted another spate of protests – and considered debate in Film Comment, with a dozen different perspectives on De Palma and pornography (10), and a provocative interview with De Palma himself (‘I don’t particularly want to chop up women but it seems to work’). (11)

 

At the time of the Dressed to Kill protests, I was living in a squat in Villa Rd, Brixton, and the street had become a centre of anti-De Palma actions, in which all the women squatters were being encouraged to become involved, in order to demonstrate their feminist credentials. Radicalism was measured in these key performance indicators of one’s commitment.

 

The squatters were predominantly single parents, unemployed, street kids, junkies, illegal immigrants, performers in political theatre troupes, women who either worked in women’s refuges or had themselves lived in them. And there were also households that were relatively middle-class: people who held nine to five jobs in local councils or welfare services and who, as anarchists, did not believe in private property. Notwithstanding their anti-bourgeois ideals, their nine-to-five needs clashed with the West Indians and Rastafarians in the street, who did not work and held all-night raves through the week as well as the weekends. Complaints had been made, to no apparent effect. The anti-De Palma activity was centred in one of the militant lesbian-separatist households in the street; planning meetings and discussions were held most evenings.

 

10. Various, ‘Pornography: Love or Death?’, Film Comment (November/December 1984), pp. 29-49.  

11. Marcia Pally, ‘Double Trouble’, Film Comment (September/October 1984), pp. 12-17; reprinted in Laurence F. Knapp (ed.), Brian De Palma: Interviews (University of Mississippi Press, 2003), pp. 92-107.

 

 

 


Before committing ourselves to terroristic activities, a friend and I decided we should go to see Dressed to Kill, in case it turned out to have something useful to say to us – in case it had some redeeming features. We had some qualms about spray-painting cinema screens, since it seemed odd to locate the point of activity of the film – a medium which, at this level at least, has a certain transparency, a certain fleeting vapidity – in the screen. To fix it there, to attempt to pin it down under the weight of layers of painted slogans and marks, was either a futile (but romantic) gesture, or else a brilliant one which identified the nature of cinematic reality far better than all the film theory of the previous few years had been able to do.

 

Lacan speaks about the screen in ways which maybe we could use to confirm the validity of the actions taken by the screen terrorists:

   

The correlative of the picture, to be situated in the same place as it, that is to say, outside, is the point of gaze, while that which forms the mediation from the one to the other, that which is between the two, is something of another nature than geometral, optical space, something that plays an exactly reverse role, which operates, not because it can be traversed, but on the contrary because it is opaque – I mean the screen ... And if I am anything in the picture, it is always in the form of the screen, which I earlier called the stain, the spot. (12)

 

 

12. Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts, p. 96.


Of course, our screen terrorists would not thank us for these remarks, nor would they need them; but it is remarks like these that raise a doubt that apparently literal political actions can be easily dismissed. Maybe they were on to something we had not seen.

 

We saw Dressed to Kill, fearing that we would be shocked and horrified, and that we might come out convinced that screen terrorism was necessary. Instead, we watched a film which seemed to say more about masculine anxiety than about the fears that women were expressing in relation to the film. We kept waiting for the horror – and when it came, we enjoyed it. We wondered if we had seen the same film that people had been complaining about, so we went to one of the street meetings to discuss our problems. We found out that, in fact, none of the women had seen the film at all, and they did not want to hear our opinions about it.

 

And this turned out to be a general feature in every situation in which a ‘citizen censorship’ movement called for the boycott of a film to which one group or another took offence, whether it was feminists and gays objecting to a Brian De Palma film, or Christians protesting the screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s Hail Mary (1985) five or six years later. It was exactly this period of the ‘80s when some strands of feminism seemed indistinguishable from right-wing Christian extremism in the anti-democratic gestures of, for example the Dworkin-MacKinnon Anti-Pornography Civil Rights Ordinance (1983) – which, fortunately, did not succeed. In any case, it was anti-pornography activism that first drew my attention to Dressed to Kill. And that is how I came to be a De Palma fan.

 

***

   

Man is the one who desires, woman the one who is desired. This is woman’s entire but decisive advantage. Through man’s passion, nature has given man into woman’s hands, and the woman who does not know how to make him her subject, her slave, her toy, and how to betray him with a smile in the end is not wise. (13)

  13. Gilles Deleuze and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty & Venus in Furs (New York: Zone Books, 1991), p. 244.

***


Episode 4: Conference on Feminist Criticism and Cultural Production, Canberra, 1986

   

Over the last decade, women have been breaking their ballpoints trying to describe what a female gaze might be, what images might emanate from a female subject with her own language and vision. The feminist’s word on the woman-as-object seemed final: inert, blind, and silent, she is useless to us. Yet perhaps that judgment was hasty. Perhaps there is something about being an object that is useful to us. (14)

 

 

14. Marcia Pally, ‘Object of the Game’, Film Comment, Vol 2 No 3 (June 1985), pp. 68-73.


   

As is so often the case with conferences that bring together criticism and culture, the second term is required to function as the entertainment, the light relief from the high seriousness of the critical endeavour. I had been invited to organise a film program (15) and forum at a conference on feminist criticism and cultural production (16), but had not anticipated the pain that would be caused by the selected feature film, Elfi Mikesch and Monika Treut’s Seduction: The Cruel Woman (Verführung: Die Grausame Frau, 1985).

 

During the evening screening of the film, angry women stormed out while others gritted their teeth and stoically stayed until the end. (17) The following day, women spoke of their anger and pain; relatively few people were able to say that they enjoyed the film. There were questions and demands. Why show such a film at such a conference? It was always striking to find how reluctant feminist audiences tended to be in embracing films that rose to the challenge of looking differently – for all the calls to develop a new way of seeing. It was insufficient to point out that Treut was a serious scholar, with a Ph.D. on de Sade’s Juliette and Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs (18), and had worked with female-to-male transsexuals; or that the part of Wanda had been played by Mechthild Grossmann, a principal dancer in Pina Bausch’s company.

 

In choosing to show Seduction: The Cruel Woman, it was a question of countering simplistic feminist films, like Not a Love Story (Bonnie Sherr Klein, 1981) and Broken Mirrors (Marlene Gorris, 1984), that had presented a moralistic view of pornography and sex work. Seduction: The Cruel Woman possessed some conventions of entertaining horror – not, admittedly of the more commercial kind, like The Hunger (Tony Scott, 1983), Body Double or David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979) – but these would have been difficult choices at the event, because they were directed by men. On the other hand, it is a much better and much more intelligent film than something like The Slumber Party Massacre (1982, directed by Amy Holden Jones – and written by Rita Mae Brown).

 

All of the works selected for the program were about performance: the question of acting, not only in a theatrical sense but also in a political sense (and to acknowledge the links between politics and performance). Seduction: The Cruel Woman is entirely lacking in sentimentality, unlike most feminist films (or most Australian films) at the time. Its anti-sentimental quality provided a distance for thinking about the image in itself, and not simply questions of the ‘image of women’ – or power itself, rather than the powerlessness of women. This was a film that had at its centre the discomforting figure of ambivalent feminine (masculine?) power, the Phallic Woman – an unwelcome presence, even at feminist conferences. So much for sisterhood.

 

15. Films selected: Kathy Mueller’s video Finishing Touches (1984, written by Lesley Stern), Laleen Jayamanne’s A Song of Ceylon (1985), and Elfi Mikesch & Monika Treut’s Seduction: The Cruel Woman (1985).  

16. Forum participants: Felicity Collins, Laleen Jayamanne, Annette Kuhn and Lesley Stern.  

17. The film also caused scandal and outrage at the Berlin Film Festival in 1985 and at Toronto in 1986. See Julia Knight, ‘The Meaning of Treut?’ In Tamsin Wilton (ed.), Immortal, Invisible: Lesbians and the Moving Image (London: Routledge, 1995), pp. 34-51; and Catherine Saalfield, ‘The Seduction of Monika’, Outweek , no. 21 (November 12, 1989), pp. 40-43.  

18. See Monika Treut, ‘Female Misbehavior’, in Laura Pietropaolo & Ada Testaferri (eds), Feminisms in the Cinema (Indiana University Press, 1995), pp. 106-124; Gerfried Stocker & Christine Schöpf (eds), NEXT SEX: Sex in the Age of its Procreative Superfluousness. Sex im Zeitalter seiner reproduktionstechnischen Überflüssigkeit  (Vienna/New York: Ars Electronica/Springer, 2000).


It would be Very Nice if pleasure could be found in the right places but, as it happens, it has to be seized wherever it can be found, here and there, in places where you shouldn’t go if you’re a nice girl. What are canonical texts if not delinquents that have been whipped into shape within disciplinary fields hellbent on forcing submission? (In what sense is Women’s Studies any different?) In retrospect, I had to acknowledge that the screening was a failure, and I had misjudged the audience. No amount of pointing out that Treut and Mikesch’s film had drawn on the progressive aspects of Sacher-Masoch’s writings (19) would succeed in convincing the critics at this Feminist Criticism and Cultural Production event that these questions of image, performance and power might be productively explored in such a cinematic form. Questions of gender performativity seemed at this stage to be a more avant-garde concern – although, within four years, everyone began to embrace performativity and the Rivierean idea of womanliness as masquerade (20), refreshed via Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. (21)

 

***


Episode 5: Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Fundraising Party, Sydney, 1991

We have heard a rumour that a stripper is to do a performance and there is a certain unease amongst the women in the crowd: will it be a man or a woman? If it is a man, then this will place the women in an interesting situation because, here, now, nearly twenty years later, these women have no interest and desire in seeing men cast as sex objects; but curiously, after all this time, some of them may have an ambivalent desire to see women in this position. This is a celebratory event all the more important because, in this period, death hangs over the gay community constantly, although you wouldn’t necessarily know this, just by looking; life, as a consequence, has come to have intense meaning.

 

 

 

19. ‘The work of Masoch draws on all the forces of German Romanticism. In our opinion, no other writer has used to such effect the resources of fantasy and suspense. He has a particular way of “desexualizing” love and at the same time sexualizing the entire history of humanity’. Deleuze, Masochism, p. 12.  

20. Joan Riviere, ‘Womanliness as a Masquerade’, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, no. 10 (1929), pp. 303–313.  

21. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London: Routledge, 1990). The book’s title alluded to another film, John Waters’ Female Trouble (1974).  


Drag queens parade through the crowd, disappearing every so often to do another costume change; the masquerade of womanliness takes considerable effort, even for drag queens who embrace it with more passion than most women do. At this event, however, such a masquerade is not one which women are required to perform; they become voyeurs to the spectacle of a projection of femininity, while the activity of exhibitionism is taken on by men. Women themselves may not even notice the performance of femininity by men that surrounds them; instead, their eyes are fixed on other women in the crowd, noticing what they are wearing, how they move, who they are with; everyone looks constantly; the old opposition, the odd couple, voyeurism and exhibitionism become the same thing, in an outrageous parody of all that earnest work about the evils of the look. Everyone is having a good look.

 

The Sinead O’Connor hit song ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ begins. There is a roar of motorcycle engines – a gang of Dykes on Bikes rides across the stage, a long line of bikes, with two women on each of them; the women are all in black leather – some wear leather wrist bands, some wear nothing under their leather vests. At first, the spectacle of the procession is derived from the presence of so many women on bikes and the noise of the machines – no different from any spectacle of bikies riding in packs. Everyone stops to look; there is a sense of threat, which passes when the procession ends.

 

On this occasion, however, the spectacle only begins when the procession has ended. The passenger on the last bike is not wearing leather, but is noticeably more femme; she is wearing a chiffon dress and a long, flowing scarf. The bike pauses briefly as she dismounts and it roars off, as she looks longingly at its rider, enacting a scenario of abandonment; the words of the song become the speech of her actions. At first she is disconsolate; the mood of the song and its desperate longing distracts the audience. It is like thousands of moments we have seen in movies: someone leaves someone. Everyone in the audience has been in this moment.

 

Before anyone can slip into too deep a reverie, the woman’s body is animated by the music, and she languidly sheds her clothes. There is little of the usual tease of the audience with different items of clothing tossed into the crowd; when she has divested herself, the audience is briefly disappointed. It is almost as if the performer ignores her audience, performing for herself, in front of a mirror.

 

On this occasion, the line has been crossed before anyone notices it. The dancer is entirely naked, her only prop the silk scarf she arrived with. She uses it, twirling it round her body and in the air in front of the audience. A spectacular dance begins in which the body of the performer, in its most intimate detail, is displayed to the audience, as if it is an instrument of apotropaic magic. She lithely moves around the stage; the performance could simply be called dance or gymnastics but, at the same time, ‘erotic dancing’ is too mild a term to describe it. By sex-show standards, this is not at all shocking. But context is all and, even for this audience, the performance is a remarkable scene that has the capacity to disrupt everything. Gay and lesbian identity slips and slides as easily as the dancer slithers across the stage.

 

The performance disrupts several orders of looking and seeing. Elizabeth, we later learn, is straight and usually performs for straight men; in this context, however, the performance falls on blind eyes, as it were; the performance is not for the men. It is the women who respond ambivalently to the performance and yet, as a straight woman, she is, in a sense, not performing for them; she is performing for men who are absent from this event. The men who are present are uncertain of what is required of them; some of them say that they feel outside of the proceedings. Perhaps they feel as the women would feel if a male stripper had performed. But, in both these responses, in a gay and lesbian context, something is revealed of the nature of response to the body of the other, which is undoubtedly present in all instances of striptease – an ambivalence, even horror, in the presence of the other body.

 

Amongst the women, there is considerable dispute about whether pleasure can be taken in such a performance, in view of the history of the women’s movement. Some are horrified and reject, on political grounds, the opportunity to take up an active (voyeuristic) position; others, less ideologically sound, are delighted at the opportunity, revelling in it. At the end of the performance, many of the drag queens change into their civvies and go home – for once, they have been upstaged; for once, they cannot compete.

 

Later we talk to the performer, and learn that she is forty-three and has been performing for twenty-five years; in the performance, age was overwhelmed by the sheer frontality of body and movement, so that the revelation that the performer is probably older than most of the audience is another source of pleasure – an unusual kind of pleasure under the circumstances of so many relatively young men dying. She has seen active service in more than one sense and, in 1968, spent her twenty-first birthday in Vietnam, entertaining troops; her war stories make our hair stand on end, since the battles she has fought (pack rape by Australian soldiers, a story told dispassionately like the account of any prisoner of war) in a particular front-line are of a different order than the battles which were then being conducted by women in Australia, also in the context of the Vietnam war.

 

Now, she says, work is becoming harder to find; sex performers must keep up with the demands of an industry requiring much riskier behaviour. The tameness of campus striptease from the early 1970s seems innocuous by comparison with contemporary sex and porn industry demands, she notes. And, in our conversations, it turns out that it was the same Elizabeth who performed the university strip in the first anecdote of this essay. The gap between that event and this one is the distance travelled in thinking through some of these difficult questions of subjects, objects and images.

 

***

   

   

Cover of 1965 exhibition catalogue, incorporating Bridget Riley, Current (1964, Emulsion on composition board, 148.3cm x 148.875cm), Museum of Modern Art.

   

… but motion pictures are a kinetic art form; you’re dealing with motion and sometimes that can be violent motion. There are very few art forms that let you deal with things in motion …

 

Rapid motion, percussive motion, emphatic motion may enliven the screen, but then there’s the content. You can have an arching motion by itself and you can have that motion be used to slash someone’s throat. You can use deep red and silver as a color combination or you can have a razor cut someone’s face. Why do you choose the violent content?

 

It interests me. I don’t know why. I’d have to be on the couch a long time to figure it out. I seem to be attracted to it. (22)

 

 

 

 

 

22. Pally, ‘Double Trouble’.


In February 1965, The Responsive Eye, an exhibition of Op Art, opens at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, (23) its quivering and throbbing style quickly impacting on popular culture and morphing into psychedelic fabric designs, magazine and LP covers, movie posters and music festival packaging, soon becoming ubiquitous. A twenty-four-year-old Brian De Palma is at the exhibition opening, shooting a documentary (also titled The Responsive Eye and completed in 1966) featuring the artists, curators, celebrities and rich collectors. (24) From the dynamic opening shots of people entering the Museum, through the faceted light flashes of a revolving door, a striking vision is already apparent. (25) Sight is mobilised by the art works which, in their inevasible effect on the eyes, demand movement and action by the spectator. The astutely responsive filmmaker grasps the very mobility of the image and its experience. Perception is aroused, propelled out of passivity, as if the act of seeing itself has become violent. The shock of time – certainly of this time – becomes visceral. The mood of the time becomes a way of seeing, shaping the vision of this Quaker-educated filmmaker, son of an orthopedic surgeon, for whom medicine is less precise than cinema.

 

Two days before the exhibition opens, Malcolm X is assassinated in New York; in the course of the exhibition, Martin Luther King leads the Selma to Montgomery march, three months after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and the US massively escalates its involvement in Vietnam. Meanwhile at the movies, My Fair Lady (1964) and Mary Poppins (1964) scoop the Oscars, but it is not enough to stop the revolution of perception and thought that is occurring. Anti-war protests spread, draft cards are burned, Bob Dylan goes electric; in June 1965, the first contingent of Australian troops arrives in Vietnam, a year before Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt’s ‘All the way with LBJ’ speech. The rest is, as they say ...

 

Godard’s oft-cited claim that it is not a matter of ‘making political films, but rather making films politically’ plays out in the specific politics of vision that De Palma practices. He is explicit about this, in his intense awareness of what cinema is and the double level of engagement both filmmakers and viewers have in the presence of images.

 

23. The catalogue is available on the Ubuweb site.

24. The film’s producer is Midge Mackenzie, who later initiated the BBC mini-series and book about the Suffragettes, Shoulder to Shoulder (1974). The Responsive Eye is available on YouTube and Ubuweb, as well as in the French DVD pack Brian De Palma les années 60 (Carlotta Films, 2003).  

25. Contrast the energy of the De Palma film with conventional television news and current affairs coverage at the time.

 

 

 

 

 


First of all, I am interested in the medium of film itself, and I am constantly standing outside and making people aware that they are always watching a film. At the same time I am evolving it … There is a kind of Brechtian alienation idea here: you are aware of what you are watching at the same time that you are emotionally involved with it. (26)

  26. Richard Rubinstein, ‘The Making of Sisters: An Interview with Director Brian De Palma’, Filmmakers Newsletter (September 1973), pp. 25-30; reprinted in Knapp, Brian De Palma: Interviews, p. 9.

After The Responsive Eye, De Palma’s films of the ‘60s, though immature, are self-reflexive, fascinated with the structures of looking and the artifice of cinema. From the Powell/Pressburger/Peeping Tom-influenced Murder a la Mod (1967), and the Vietnam-draft-dodging masculine ambivalence of Greetings (1968), to the webcam-anticipating Hi Mom! (1970), De Palma’s focus on ‘catching every body in the act’ succeeds in capturing the transparency of the act of watching in the context of ‘60s art, experimental theatre and filmmaking in New York. This context sets the tone for his ongoing explorations of voyeurism, less interestingly as a peep-show activity in which men watch women undressing, more as a process of the helplessness of the observer, in the repeated feature in his films of characters unable to save someone.




Amongst the influx of artists to New York in the late 1960s, a young Australian arrives, finding a job in a framing factory in Harlem and participating in the emergence of the Conceptual Art movement that succeeds Pop Art and Minimalism in the late ‘60s. (27) Responding to the milieu in which he finds himself, some of his own work at this time is involved with the act of looking and reading, but perhaps more with reflection than with watching, using layers of glass – one of the materials of his day job – and mirrors, exploring transparency and
visual-perceptual instability. (28)

 

The framing factory’s main sales showroom was downtown, serving the thriving business of painting in the city; the factory itself was a closed shop, controlled by the Teamsters, whose leader, Jimmy Hoffa, was then in jail for alleged embezzlement of union funds. The workers were mainly Puerto Rican or Cuban illegal immigrants; between framing the kinds of optically stimulating works that appeared in The Responsive Eye and successor styles like Pop and Minimalism, they spent their lunch hours watching super-8 porno movies from Latin America.

 

A collection of these works returned to Australia with the artist in 1977 and were used in the late ‘70s in Sydney by a group of women, trying to understand what the feminist anti-pornography movement was reacting to (29), in the aftermath of horror and overreaction to the sexploitation movie, Snuff (a.k.a Slaughter and American Cannibale, Michael and Roberta Findlay, Horacio Fredriksson, 1976). The Findlays were part of the New York underground film scene; when the fake Snuff was released, the film’s distributor allegedly hired actresses to portray lesbians protesting the film, in order to create controversy around an otherwise irredeemable movie. (30)

 

Almost immediately, publicity campaigns of this sort became unnecessary with the rise of the Women Against Pornography movement. In the suspension of critical consciousness that extreme emotive response involves, there is clearly no room for distinctions between good and bad films, and no room for the kind of Brechtian distanciation that De Palma had in mind: ‘I am constantly standing outside and making people aware that they are always watching a film …’

 

Let us now return to another space of watching: the art museum, a space that De Palma eroticises with consummate force in Dressed to Kill. In the film’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) sequence – the interiors of which were actually, clandestinely filmed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art – it is easy to see traces of the Op Art-stimulated ‘responsive eye’, the active exchange of mobilised gazes, serving as an extension of the earlier film’s energy. There, among the celebrity artists interviewed, Josef Albers appears. Eight works by the artist, then in his late 70s, are included in the exhibition; he enthuses about the show, since he has waited fifty years for optical art to be recognised. Six works from his Homage to the Square, a virtually endless series begun in 1949, are shown in what he calls his ‘Chapel’ of works in the show. (31)

 

 

Albers’ last executed work is the relief sculpture entitled ‘Wrestling’ on the Commonwealth Bank building wall overlooking the square outside Sydney’s MLC Centre, commissioned by the building’s architect, Harry Seidler – a former student of Albers at Black Mountain College in the late 1940s. The influence on Seidler is apparent in his own interest in ‘the effect of tensional opposites on the apparatus of the eye’ and his commitment to the intensified effects of visual phenomena – and ‘what turns the eye on’. (32)

 

The Homage to the Square series of paintings and prints consists of subtle chromatic interactions between nested squares of colour, frames within frames. If Seidler readily acknowledges the legacy of Albers, perhaps we can also see the traces of influence on De Palma as well, through his own first encounter with The Responsive Eye.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

27. Conceptual Art and Conceptual Aspects (New York Cultural Center, April 10–August 25, 1970); exhibition organised and catalogue compiled by Donald Karshan. Artists: Joseph Kosuth, Frederick Barthelme, On Kawara, Christine Kozlov, Terry Atkinson, Michael Baldwin, David Bainbridge, Harold Hurrell, Ian Burn, Roger Cutforth, Mel Ramsden, Bruce Nauman, Dennis Oppenheim, Stephen Kaltenbach, Jan Dibbets, Douglas Huebler, Iain Baxter, Robert Barry, Hans Haacke, Daniel Buren, Bernar Venet, Ian WIlson, Mel Bochner, Saul Ostrow, Lawrence Weiner, Ed Ruscha, Donald Burgy, James Lee Byars, and Adrian Piper. See Helen Grace, ‘So I Joined the Teamsters’, in Ann Stephen (ed.), Artists Think: The Late Works of Ian Burn (Sydney: Power Publications, 1996). Burn died in 1993.  

28. ‘A mirror enables us to experience ourselves in a world of experiences, and as part of that world of appearances … with the appearance of being a unified subject’. Burn, Looking at Seeing and Reading (Sydney: Ivan Dougherty Gallery, 1993), unpaginated; see also Andrew McNamara, ‘Visual Acuity Is Not What It Seems: On Ian Burn’s “Late” Reflections’, in Mirror Mirror: Then and Now (Brisbane: Institute of Modern Art, 2010), and Ann Stephen, On Looking at Looking: The Art and Politics of Ian Burn (Melbourne: Miegunyah Press, 2006).

29. Helen Grace and Ann Stephen, ‘Where Do Positive Images Come From? (And What Does a Woman Want?)’, originally published in Scarlet Woman, no. 12 (March 1981); revised version published in Catriona Moore (ed.), Dissonance: Feminism and the Arts 1970-1990 (Sydney: Allen & Unwin/Artspace, 1994).  

30. The distributor invented a group called the Dyke Tactics Squad: ‘I never knew real fear until I saw them. Mean. Nasty. Wearing rhinestone jackets’. See Peter Birge & Janet Maslin, ‘Getting Snuffed in Boston’, Film Comment  (May/June 1976), p. 35.

31. Oral history interview with Josef Albers, June 22-July 5 1968, Smithsonian Archives of American Art.

32. Antony Westwood, ‘Reflections on Harry Seidler’, I am grateful to Narelle Jubelin for drawing my attention to De Palma’s The Responsive Eye in her short digital video Albers Seidler Establishing Shots, (2012-3), exhibited in Plants and Plans (Fundaçåo Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon, 2013).


   

When De Palma’s Obsession was shown at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1976, a writer in Edinburgh International Film Festival News noted:

   

His insistence on the spectator as voyeur, continually underlined by his breakdown of screen space into frames within frames, derives directly from his most important influence, Hitchcock. But even more than Hitchcock, De Palma is aware of the political dimension of what often appears in Hitchcock as a purely moral problem. (33)

  33. Edinburgh International Film Festival News (August, 1976); cited in Asselle & Gahdhy, Dressed to Kill, p. 138 (emphasis mine).

   

The Edinburgh Film Festival that year is perhaps much better remembered, by film scholars at least, for the Psychoanalysis and Cinema Event that had such an impact on film studies (34); De Palma was not yet so noticeable. But, in understanding the provocations of his later works, the subtleties of Albers’ chromatic experiments suggest a compositional inspiration that adds to the all-too-easy and obvious identification of Hitchcock as primary influence. And while there may be another obvious and simple explanation for a young man’s preference for regarding art museums as higher quality pick-up spots in view of his belief in the ‘better yield potential at MoMA than someone met huddling under a park bench in a rainstorm’ (35), it is surely not too much to hope that men also grow up.

 


A much earlier version of this essay first appeared as ‘The Bride
Stripped Bare ...’ in Linda Marie Walker (ed.), … but never by chance … (eroticism) (Adelaide: Experimental Art Foundation, 1992).

 

34. For one eye-witness account, see Jonathan Rosenbaum, ‘Regrouping: Reflections on the Edinburgh Festival 1976’,.  

35. Jared Martin – De Palma’s former roommate at Columbia in the 1960s – cited in Jason Zinoman, ‘He Likes to Watch’, Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror (London: Penguin, 2011), pp. 151-174.



© Helen Grace and LOLA September 2013.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.


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