KINO-JOURNAL OF THE AMAZED SPECTATOR 2308LM ©edgar pêra
(A small part of this interview was published in my book about Hollywood)
EDGAR PÊRA – So, can you start by telling me how, from your point of view, Hollywood started and how it ended?
LAURA MULVEY – I think the beginning came out of several factors, all at once: one, the decline of Europe in the aftermath of first world war, so the film industries of Europe were actually literally in ruins. At the same time, the United States was going through a boom period, the economy was rising and rising, and turning into the famous “bubble” of the 1920’s which then exploded, but by that time, the film industry was established. The next thing was that by among the first world war, the urban population of the USA overtook the rural population, and there were enough people for the studios to make a profit inside the country. So everything that was exported was pure extra money. Those were the economic sides but then I think with the development of a management side of capitalism, the Hollywood studio system could then be institutionalized within that kind of management structure. But those were rather boring sides, I think on the other side there was also what I’m more interested in, is the way that after the first world war with the economic boom, more and more young women went out to work, and young women became a market of a much more considerable kind that it ever been before. And they demanded fun, they wanted dancing, entertainment, and going to the movies was one of the fun things they wanted to do. And a whole lot of films started to be made with this young women market in mind, and they were what I think of as the flapper films, (the young modern women who cut their skirts short, cut their hair short,fuck wore silk stockings and make-up were called flappers). The great star of flappers was Clara Bow. And she said that period of late silent cinema represents to me a feminine, not a feminist, a small feminine trend in it, of making movies about fun, with the great stars like Louise Brooks, Clara Bow, Gloria Swanson, Joan Crawford.
EP – So, you see that as a kind of a model for behavior in Clara Bow? It’s not feminist but it’s about finding some individuality.
LAURA MULVEY – Yes. It was a kind of controlled eroticism, where questions of sex, questions of behavior, questions of contraception, sex outside marriage, all began to be discussed. An early commentator in the 10’s I think, wrote an article called It’s Sex O’clock in America. But of course all this came to an end with the crash.
EP – It didn’t came to and end with the morality code censorship?
LAURA MULVEY – Came in before that (morality code censorship), possibly the morality codes were out of the greater austerity of the United States. There was a sense in the aftermath of the crash, completely unjustly to blame the bubble on the irresponsible young women, who had spent all their money on cosmetics. There was a sense of the frivolity of the 20’s, and after the crash, I think quite gradually, moving towards the Roosevelt period, there was a masculinization of the sensibility. As man in the art of work, it was more important for man to be back in the centre of the economy than women. There was a more austere feeling, more socially responsible that came in with Roosevelt. I’m not an historian, this is more intuitive. But at the same time something else happened, and I think it’s very interesting that these two things happened simultaneously, that the effects were more significant in Europe perhaps than immediately in the US, was that alongside the crash was the coming of synchronized sound, and so the flapper stars who intended to epitomize the bodily energy of that moment, they were always dancing Charleston, they were constantly energetic. Clara Bow never stopped moving, she was always… if she wasn’t moving she was bouncing around on the spot.
And with the coming of the tyranny of sound. The synchronized sound and the microphone meant that everybody had to stand quite still and speak into the mic. Although this didn’t last forever, it meant the very gestural and energetic performance associated with this stars, had to either mutate in the case of Joan Crawford or someone like Clara Bow made a couple of talkies but then retired and couldn’t really be bothered. Also the morality clauses were coming in, and she was notoriously immoral. (smiles)
EP – At least for the censors! It’s interesting, now we scrutinize the lives of the stars. Because it’s like modern politics.
LAURA MULVEY – I think it’s a way of excavating history informally, just two small details of people’s lives.
EP – Do you see see Psycho as the beginning of the end of Hollywood?
LAURA MULVEY – Yes, I think it was Hitchcock’s brilliance to see how things were changing. This was one of the topics of my presentation on Thursday, I was talking really about it, refracted through Godard film Le Mépris. In a way which Godard was perhaps moaning but recognizing the end of the Hollywood he had loved, he and cinephile critics in Cahiers du Cinema had been formed and molded by this Hollywood Cinema, every week going to see the latest releases, writing reviews, and gradually seeing this genial cinema coming very quickly to an end. And of course again straight forward reasons like the Paramount decision, which took apart vertical integration of the studios, there was also the coming of television, and with television came the wonderful explosion of color and wide screen, even 3D in the 50’s, as a way of making a last stand against the little black and white image in the corner of a sitting room. But I also think it was coming to an end in some ways naturally because the great Directors were getting old. In Le Mépris Godard draws attention to this by using Fritz Lang, who had been born before the Cinema was born and grown up with the Cinema, walking hand in hand with some of the great moments of expressionism, the coming of sound, and then the great period of the studio system. Of course Godard used Fuller later for Pierrot Le Fou, where he’s wonderful. Belmondo always says: “I want to know what is Cinema”, and Fuller says: “film is a battlefield, love, war, something, something… in a word: emotion!”. But of course even someone younger like Fuller and Nicholas Ray might have been a bit younger, but their careers came to an end at that point as well.
EP – So, basically what is the greatest difference between Hollywood Cinema and Post-Hollywood Cinema? The difference between that Cinema that died in the 60’s and the Cinema that came after. Do you think is there really a fracture or is it just an evolution?
LAURA MULVEY – I think there is a fracture, because that generation of directors all lost their jobs, and again in Le Mépris Godard kind of satirizes the decline into an overblown too expensive movies with the production of Ulysses, the odyssey that’s happening in his own movie. And you see so many of his favorite directors crumbling in overblown productions like Mankiewicz in Cleopatra, Anthony Mann in El Cid… and goes on and on through the list. The iconic stars of the Hollywood studios were also getting to their end…As Douglas Sirk said when he described Imitation of Life, the most successful film he’d ever made, he felt it was time to leave. He said something like: “I felt it was time to get out of this magnificent…”. I can’t remember, I’ll send you the quote… But he said something really beautiful. He said its intuition at the time was that new and smaller movies were going to be made, he talked particularly about Easy Rider, and other new budget movies and of course it was Hitchcock who understood that new trend when he insisted on making Psycho.
EP – What does the word Hollywood mean to you today?
LAURA MULVEY – Because of the way I’ve been thinking particularly about this period of the 50’s as being a period of great movies made by an aging system, aging directors, an industry that was coming to the end of an era. I’ve thinking about it as a late style, a style that comes in… the blossoms at towards the end of its life. So I’ve been thinking particularly about that other way that cinema was one of enormous control, the way it flourished within the space of the studio, and around the body and the presence of the star. All of which made a Cinema that was anthropomorphic, concentrated on the body, the face, the gesture, the interaction of people. Which in a sense makes a Cinema of high dramatic points. It seems to me now that, looking back at Hollywood it was less a cinema of cause and effect, of continuity, as they used to say of silent films but more a cinema of talkies, dramatic moments, confrontations, emotional explosion, which had to be tied together somehow, but these moments were more important than the continuities between them, which is one of the reasons why I think that cinema nowadays fragments so beautifully into precious moments and privileged gestures. (So the DVD, Internet, came for this pleasure). Yes, a new cinephilia.
EP – Do you consider the image of women in classic Hollywood as something like a close-up and men as a wide shot? Do you think the image of the woman is more fragmented? (when, for instance you just see shots of legs or lips…) how do you see this kind of difference? Today films, they use the male body as an object desire. So, what does that mean to you, this kind of evolution of objectifying/ fetishizing? Not only the female body but also the male…
LAURA MULVEY – In a first instance, it took me back to a series of studies, two articles I think that my friend Miriam Hanson wrote about Rudolph Valentino and the way that she argued I think very convincingly, that Valentino presented a difficulty for american ideology at the time, because of his feminization. Well, also his foreignness/ethnicity, and beauty, and Valentino made it clear that it was possible for a Cinema to exist for the pleasure, for the female case at the male body. Miriam argued that this was in a sense a shock, which the Cinema more or less absorbed into his own ideology. So in Valentino movies, he had been very much a spectacle, so that other movies around him and then the general trend was to incorporate masculinity into action and genderize the division of labour of Cinema. But I think it’s also interesting that inevitably the male movie star was a sight of attraction and inevitably he was on display. But always the system was trying to compensate for that, and there is a moment I love at the beginning of Don Siegel’s filmThe Big Steal with Robert Mitchum, where William Bendix kicks-open the door and Mitchum swings round and he’s doubled in a mirror behind him. And the shock, makes a moment which is figure is paused as spectacle. But in order to compensate for that moment of the spectacle immediately a fight breaks out and masculinization takes over again.
Of course in the 50’s there were the moments of kind of great masculine beauty of James Dean and Marlon Brando, to name only two, but I think what’s so interesting now (that you were pointing out) is that there’s a polymorphous re-spectacularization of the human body, in which both the feminine and the masculine are somewhat androgenized.
And this again can go back to the 1920’s when the figure of the flapper was somewhat androgynous, and again Valentino is in a slightly androgynous terms, and some of the other matinée idol stars of that period. So I think there’s an androgenization of the human body now, but what I find is rather interesting about it, is because of the technology probably, because of the digitalization, the physicality of the human body is somewhat dematerializing. It’s becoming generality flatter and more airbrushed. So that the photographed image in advertising and so on, tends to be almost… with signs of gender superimposed on the beauty of the body itself, and as the human body becomes beautiful in its sculpted form, so that muscle and fine presentation of the flesh has become taken over from fashion. The fined tuned body has replaced fashionable clothes as a mode of representing body as desirable. But in the movies I’m not so sure, this is partly my fault, because I haven’t kept up enough with contemporary Hollywood Cinema, it hasn’t caught my imagination in the same way other cinemas did have. I was rather interested in the way in which CGI effects seem to have created the possibility of an action women… the action of something like Crouching Tiger or Kill Bill, in which the spectacular nature of the female body becomes fused with the spectacular nature of the CGI effects. The two forms of spectacle seem to kind of merge together.
EP – And what do you think about it ? Is stimulating in a way for women?
LAURA MULVEY – Not particularly. No.
EP – Because I know some women who are particularly fond of Kill Bill. They felt empowered by the female protagonist of the movie.
LAURA MULVEY – I’m afraid I’m a too much old fashioned feminist, not a new feminist. I don’t find violence liberating. For someone from my generation that’s impossible.
EP – Well, when you use violence as a spectacle I don’t think it’s…maybe it’s not violence at all.
LAURA MULVEY – Yes, that’s quite true. Perhaps its another form of ballet.
EP – Well, what I like about Hong Kong movies when I see them is that kind of ballet. They make those movements when they almost stop the story, and they are fighting and flying…
LAURA MULVEY – It’s a choreography. That is quite true. I agree with that. It is not the violence as liberation but the liberation from gravity.
3D ANAGLYPHIC PICTURES – From the book/film O Espectador Espantado-The Amazed Spectator by Edgar Pêra– Production Bando À Parte