Talks & Fourms

Masterclass with Bette Gordon

Masterclass with Bette Gordon Moderator|Chen Huei-yin (curator of the 29th WMWFF) Speaker|Bette Gordon   We are very honored to have director Bette Gordon with us today. This year, Women Make Waves IFF presents three of your works, that is, I-94, Anybody’s Woman, and Variety in our Vortex of Desire program. Let’s start with I-94, can you share about the motive of making I-94? Back in the early 1970s, I was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and James Benning was the student as well. We met each other at the time when experimental films were dominated by the idea of visual poetry language, filmmakers like Stan Brakhage. But we are more into rigorous look at the idea of “what is cinema”, “what is image,” the same way as the painters of the 70s were also interested in minimal approach, simply exploring what medium can offer, like the thickness of the paint, leaning toward conceptual art. So what we were interested in exploring is: film as a medium. What makes it unique is the way it uses time and space. The idea of 24 frames per second is very interesting, it means the images on screen only stay for such a short time, but then what’s so beautiful about film is that you can change the relationship between time and space. What we did is basically recopying each film. At school, we had an optical printer, which has a projector on one side and camera on the other side, so you have a camera photographing a picture illuminated in the projector, a camera looking at a little tiny frame. For I-94, we have two shots altogether. One shot of me walking away from the camera and one shot of James walking toward the camera. And then we took these two shots to the optical printer, and we printed every print 60 times. One frame printed for 60 times. And then we covered the lens of the camera on the optical printer, and printed 60 times of black. It really took us a long time in the dark room, because we are literally clicking one frame 60 times. It was a very beautiful process, because it has a rhythm to it. We finished our copy each frame 60 times, and then we printed them together in the laboratory. When you put all these together, intercutting the images, the images are very fast, almost like a bullet. Because it’s so quick, it seems like one frame is on top of one another. As I walked away from the camera, he walked toward the camera. Our bodies are sort of hit right in the middle, like having sex, but we are actually separated in frames. Reprinting and reframing by means of an optical printer. I thought that particularly the mechanism of the film itself, physical aspect of film, having film going through the projector, and you can feel it, touch it and hold it up. I find it very seductive. I thought the process is so seductive leaning toward the images itself. So the actual effect of walking in the film, stretching time, changing space, becomes intriguing. The naked bodies already hinted on something sexual, but the technology itself, the way we represented images, mechanism, machine is sexy. The way shutter works, the way your eyes catch on fracture of frames. But the digital is not, digital is pure information to be read.   《I-94》 Another question is about the audio of the film. You not only see them move, but also hear them. The female character is talking about how she is not valued and taken seriously. Her voice started to fade away, while James, the male character’s voice started to get louder. Can you talk about the idea behind it? Each of us entered the room alone recording our voices. We didn’t know what the other person was going to say, but just said something personal about ourselves. I said what bothers me when I was 21 year old. I don’t know why but people don’t take me seriously. I am not sure why, maybe it’s because of how I look, how I dress, or my age. But it was truly a frustration. The environment is of course dominated by patriarchal institutions. The structure in general didn’t really allow me to have a place. It’s so interesting, because early 70s is just time when women are starting to define our history and cinema, a lot of works were done in UK by some British feminist, about rediscovering films made by female filmmakers during the early Hollywood, which was never uncovered by any history book. We learned history, but women were not included. And one of the filmmakers, Dorothy Arzner, directed so many films in Hollywood, but how come she was not included? Any personal struggle is political. I am not saying James did not have struggles. Basically, James is struggling within this big picture, but I was in fact trying to get into the big picture. But that also sort of documented our relationship. We were really collaborative, and we were together at that time. It also took me some time to break away from that relationship, and really established myself on my own. As soon as I got a certain amount of recognition, our relationship ended. It was 7 years of my life. He was a very important person to me, and still is. But at that time, even today, the struggle for women often still has to define themselves in the way that cuts through barriers. We basically said what we felt like at the time, and over the years, now looking back these words were really integrated into that moment of time. Has the situation really changed today? Yes, to a certain extent, but still there is still so much to be done. I personally wanted to see more women in the roles that were traditionally male positions, like directorship. I don’t really care about the representation on the screen as much as about women taking on higher positions, the role of director. Given what I learned about Taiwanese cinema, the works that I studied are works of male directors. I do hope in the future some of you are thinking about directing, as the position of director takes on more responsibility and carries certain gravity.    《Anybody's Women》 Bette Gordon just mentioned Dorothy Arzner. In fact, the title of her work, “Anybody’s Woman,” shares the same title with Arzner’s 1930 film. In the film, there is a very interesting segment, where a voice-over is depicting one scene from Arzner’s work, while the protagonist is browsing through a pile of erotic photos mixing with some photos of Hollywood stars. Can you share with us the idea behind this, and how did Dorothy Arzner’s influences come together into your work? In fact, right before Anybody’s Woman, I made Empty Suitcases (1980), which is really a transition film. You can already see the transitionI [toward the narrative]. I am very interested in narrative, even in the early works of my experimental films, like I-94, it also has stories. It tells the story of a couple, and about how the representation works. In terms of Empty Suitcases, it asks direct questions: when is violence appropriate? At that time, I was living in lower Manhattan, right near the world trade center. As I pointed my camera right out my window, I had thought about violence as a political weapon, a political tool to make change, which of course relates to the roots of using violence as a political act, for example, Black Panther. And I received from my friend in Ireland the recipe of making a bomb (I don’t know why I am telling you all about this). But anyway, the relationship between documentary and fiction is really interesting. As I pointed my camera to the world trade center, which has not yet been destroyed. It’s interesting now to see how the past catches us up with the future, and future with the past.    And I was interested in the past, but Dorothy Arzner’s films were unknown to us in the early days. But later I fell in love with one of her works, Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), about two women. One is a stripper played by Lucille Ball, an incredible actress who also did I Love Lucy, and the other one is a ballad dancer who also took a job at the strip club. There was a very famous scene in which the ballad dancer stops what she’s doing and walks out the stage. She turns the table on the man, “you think you are looking at us? Let me tell you what we think of you from up here.” And it goes with such a beautiful shot. An astonishing reversal. That is cinema about who’s looking and who’s being looked at. Dorothy Arzner’s work raised such an interesting question on looking and being looked at. One of my friends, Laura Mulvey, wrote “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” developing the idea of “male gaze” and talks about the visual pleasure created by positioning women as the object of male gaze. A very close friend of mine, Karyn Kay, became the first and the last person to ever interview Dorothy Arzner before she died. And it’s in fact her voice that narrates Dorothy Arzner’s films in my Anybody’s Woman. In Dorothy Arzner’s Anybody’s Woman, two men suddenly catch eye on two women who sat near the window across the courtyard. The question of “power of look” is again explored by this incredible woman director. So I decided to take her title, and explored that question again in my work. It’s around the time when Laura’s piece came up and there was a big conference in Europe where women gather together to talk about representation in cinema. There was such excitement going on.  All of my short films deal with the idea of “body” , especially women’s bodies. Representation within open structure. The questions are: how do narrative set up desire? Who’s desire? What defines pleasure?   《Variety》 Let’s move down to the discussion on Variety. It extends the question of looking and being looked at in the context of a porn theater. This film was often referred to as “feminist Vertigo.” How do you take on that? And can you elaborate on the power dynamics of “looking” in the film? I love the idea of “feminist Vertigo”. Though now this term “feminist” is already overused, so I won’t use that word anymore. But at that time, it was very subversive, if there is anything in my life, it got to be with some kind of trouble. I like to turn things around and upside down. And I grew up watching film noir, what I liked about noir is the female character has this unrestrained kind of dangerous sexuality. They are bad girls who refuse the traditional roles women were assigned to. Also, what I love about Hitchcock’s films is the idea of “obsession.” So I took the idea of a female character in film noir who are willing to explore her sexuality in an unconventional way by becoming a voyeur, as well as Hitchcock’s idea of obsession, or obsession within obsession. Also, in Vertigo, James Stewart is obsessed about Kim Novak, who tied her hair up. So I also took the idea of a Hitchcockian blonde who tied her hair up at the back, having a blonde protagonist in my film as well. I also wanted to continue exploring some of the questions, such as what Laura Mulvey argued, pleasure in looking in cinema is connected to the way woman is central to the object of male gaze. I think, what if I turned it around. What if I don’t want to be the object, I want to be the subject? I am not afraid of going to the dark streets. If there are places only men go, I want to go there. Like porn store. In Times Square at that time, there were many sex shops and I just walked in. I want to be a voyeur, too. I want to be looking just as you are. Another thing is I was new to New York, I wasn’t living in New York until the 1980s, so my impression of New York from what I learned from cinema, is black and white, dark streets, crimes, the sense of danger. I want to find a way to talk about that. One late night, coming home from clubs and bars with friends, I discovered Variety Cinema. It was the most perfect place, with neon lights. It was so beautiful. I was intrigued. I got closer and peeped in. Not until I saw the poster that I discovered that it was a porn theater. I wanted to go in, and I met the projectionist by chance. I asked him if I can see the film, and then he invited me up to the projection booth. When I looked down there, there were basically men in the cinema. There were sex going on between the men, but the movie is heterosexual. The audience partially are not heterosexual. So I was really intrigued by the idea of cinema space. I did two films on that, one is Anybody’s Woman, and the other is Variety. Anybody’s Woman is kind of like a sketch, for me to explore some of the basic ideas. I invited Nancy Reilly from the Wooster Group to the cinema. I also invited my male friend, Spalding Gray, who was a very famous storyteller, monologist and actor (sadly he is no longer with us). I asked the manager of the theater to shoot in the cinema on Sunday, and then from there I began to think about what pornography has to say about pleasure and fantasy, and desire, both films explore that question. The way pornography works is that it sets up desire, promises desire. It even guarantees satisfaction, and yet you can’t have it. It maintains the desire from every promise but never found. In that way, looking become a central act, so frame within the frame within the frame explores the idea of how to maintain desire that keeps you coming back for more. In fact, all narratives do this, making you want more, more stories. Cinema operates like this, so do commercials. The mechanism of porn is layered through the entire culture. I want to take back my power. I don’t want to be a victim. I also want to be a looker as any male audience. The position of looking is the position of power, so I want to explore what it means in cinema. And the journey my protagonist Christine went through is not the possession of desire. What matters is not possession but the journey itself. I think what truly my character has to do is to control the story, control the narrative. If she can control the narrative, I can control the narrative. If there is any reversal of the situation of cinema, like in the film sitting in the audience watching what is on the screen, but really who controls the narrative? I control the narrative.