A Woman’s Place: Home in Cinema
Louise Radinger Field
This video is an essayistic exploration of ten films which feature a woman in a house at their core. The pairing of women and domestic space has a long history. “Ulysses has a place of return,” writes Giuliana Bruno, “an emotional-architectural container with a woman in it” (2002: 80). “The ways in which space has been historically conceived,” suggests Elizabeth Grosz, “have always functioned either to contain women or to obliterate them” (1994: 26). And yet, home is a mutable place in cinema and home in these films provides a more richly layered space than Grosz’s summary might suggest. My videographic exploration works to unpack this.
To make the piece I digitally extracted fragments from the “once inviolable objects” (Burgin 2004: 8), disassembling and reassembling them into new relationships with one another. I created a plait of three image strands spread out horizontally across three screens, or in this online iteration as a wide screen split into three. This spatial interweaving allowed me to open out and perform resonances and dissonances between films. Moreover, I could use films as keys to unlock meanings in each another. For example, editing images from Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door to the soundtrack from Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon enabled the oneiric and compulsive qualities of one film to prise open those of the other, and new understandings about each film to emerge.
The films use the “woman in a house” trope as a launch pad, which they provoke, manipulate and mutate. The homes represented can be fraught, threatening or oppressive. But they are also generative, useful spaces, providing sites for the construction and reconstruction of the self (Young 2005: 153). Women navigate architectural landscapes – they even structure them. Like Madeleine de Scudéry’s “Map of Tenderness’”(1654), these “homescapes” (Bruno 2002) function as metaphorical figurations of, and defences against, unconscious feelings and psychic structures.
The video operates in a poetic mode, to follow Keathley’s distinction (2011: 181). It hopes to engage with the potential of the images and sounds without ‘totally abandoning the knowledge effect that we associate with the essay form’ (182). While working directly with film footage it is impossible to escape “the affective value of image and sound’”(Proctor 2019: 472). Allowing oneself to enjoy the material is both pleasurable and useful. For example, enabling Celia in Secret Beyond the Door to “spread out” across three screens allowed me to experience her release more keenly, not just from the house but from her encounter with traumatic truth. This, in turn, deepened my understanding of the way the film worked.
In her review, Miriam de Rosa invites me to explore issues of “dwelling” as theorised by Heidegger. Heidegger’s ideas were something I engaged with as part of my wider project (the video was developed as a three-screen installation as part of a practice as research PhD). Each of the video’s four parts corresponds to a manner in which these women, as Heidegger describes it, “poetically dwell” (1997: 110). The sparse titles signpost this: “Boxes”; “Rooms”; “Dreams” and “Thresholds.” I attempt to videographically perform these notions, rather than to explain them and make them explicit.
In early edits, I placed salient quotes onscreen to guide the viewer and act as what Grant calls “signifiers of weightiness” (2013). As the video developed, I removed them because their presence inflected the piece too heavily. I wanted to provide space for the audience to make their own connections. I patterned intervals and gaps between images, sounds and screens. Sometimes two screens are dark, while only one has an image. At other times all three screens are “full.” Elsaesser and Hagener describe these kinds of spaces as “passages or portals through which energies circulate.” Gaps provide “moments of hesitation that invite new openings that need to be activated and performed by the spectators” (2010: 46). Thought processes and associations of the audience can entwine themselves into the audiovisual braid.
The video was first shown on three large screens in the Bulmershe Theatre in the Department of Film, Theatre & Television at Reading in December 2019, and screened on a single monitor at the Tate Modern in January 2020, as part of Tate Exchange. Now you watch it online. The spaces and openings (dark screens, silences, etc) are spatially pronounced when the video is experienced as an installation. In relation to this point, de Rosa suggests I adapt the online version, taking this into account. This raises the issue of how an open film text such as this is experienced online. I respect her point of view, yet am keen to keep the piece as it is. Overlaying an explanatory voice-over or guiding text would be out of tune with the suggestive nature of the project. The video is assiduously constructed, but it is also an audiovisual reverie. Reveries, writes psychoanalyst Thomas Ogden, are not literal representations of or direct “glimpses into” the unconscious. They are “metaphorical expressions of what the unconscious experience is like” (my italics, 1997: 719). The video is my response to the unconscious territory so beautifully transfigured into metaphor in these films.
Jessica McGoff points out in her report the “thread of uniformity” running through my film selection. This responds to a quote from bell hooks (included in my initial supporting statement), re-positioning home as somewhere to experience “new ways of seeing reality, frontiers of difference” (1989: 36). hooks’s work on the subject points towards a paradox: that the feminist assumption of home as a place of entrapment and boredom is a stance which can only derive from those privileged enough to take home ownership for granted (2008). hook invites us to re-see the home, just as these films do. This video makes no claim to encompass all that can be said about home in cinema, as McGoff acknowledges. My aim was to build a new cinematic home for these women to inhabit, to elaborate what Doane calls “a new process of seeing and remembering” (1990: 62) a woman in a room.
Bruno, Giuliana. 2007. Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film (New York: Verso)
Burgin, Victor. 2004. The Remembered Film. (London: Reaktion Books Ltd)
Doane, Mary Ann. 1990. “Remembering Women: Psychical and Historical Constructions in Film Theory” in Psychoanalysis and Cinema, ed. E Ann Kaplan (New York & London: Routledge)
Elsaesser, Thomas & Malte Hagener. 2010. Film Theory: An Introduction Through the Senses (New York & London: Routledge)
Grant, Catherine. 2013. “How long is a piece of string? On the Practice, Scope and Value of Videographic Film Studies and Criticism,” The Audiovisual Essay: Practice and Theory of Videographic Film and Moving Image Studies, September, 2014, https://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/audiovisualessay/frankfurt-papers/catherine-grant/
Grosz, Elizabeth. 1994. “Women, Chora, Dwelling,” ANY: Architecture New York, no. 4, 22–27, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41846076.
Heidegger, Martin. 2010. (First published 1951) “Poetically Man Dwells” in Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory ed. Neil Leach. (London & New York: Routledge)
hooks, bell. 1989. “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness,” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 36, 15-23
hooks, bell. 2008. “Homeplace: A Site of Resistance” in Philosophy and the City: Classic to Contemporary Writings ed. Sharon M Meagher. (New York: State University of New York Press)
Keathley, Christian. 2011. “La Caméra-Stylo: Notes on Video Criticism and Cinephilia” in Language and Style of Film Criticism, eds. Alex Clayton & Andrew Kelvin. (Abingdon & New York: Routledge)
Ogden, Thomas. 1997. “Reverie and Metaphor: Some Thoughts on How I Work as a Psychoanalyst,” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 78.
Proctor, Jennifer. 2019. “Teaching Avant-Garde Practice as Videographic Research” in Screen 60.3.
Young, Iris Marion. 2005. On Female Body Experience: “Throwing like a girl” and Other Essays. (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
Craig’s Wife (Arzner 1936), Rebecca (Hitchcock 1940), Meshes of the Afternoon (Deren 1943), Secret Beyond the Door (Lang 1947), Midnight Lace (Miller 1960), Saute Ma Ville (Akerman 1968), A Woman Under the Influence (Cassavetes 1974), Jeanne Dielman 23 Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (Akerman 1975), House (Ahtila 2002), Exhibition (Hogg 2013).