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Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons - Interview

How would you situate the intervention of your film? Within which and against which aesthetic traditions were you trying to intervene? If anywhere, I would see it as closer to Straub than to the more traditional forms of avant-garde such as the Anglo-Saxon avant-gardes, the New American cinema and so on.

PW: It is closer to the American avant-gardes than Straub is. Although I would agree that the main current the film comes out of is the European avant-garde, eg, Straub-Huillet, and I would like to mention Jackie Raynal's film Deux Fois and Chantal Akerman's films. But there are also affinities with Yvonne Rainer's Lives of Performersand the films of Joyce Wieland, especially the more recent ones with a more political dimension, Solidarity andPierre Vallières. In a way we sought a confusion of identity between 'Europe' and "America' - we don't reject the New American Cinema as such, but we do reject it's chauvinist adherents and spokesmen, and of course we have a contrasting philosophical and political background.

Nevertheless, the importance of language and the way is used in your film is very different, from the kind of irrational, mystic overtones of the Anglo-Saxon avant-gardes, such as Sharits, Wieland, Frampton and so on. I see your film as closer to a materialist conception of language such as, eg, modern French theories of writing.

PW: That's an absolutely false characterisation of those films. For instance, Hollis Frampton's Zorns Lemma (1971) is based on mathematical transformations in relation to the alphabet....

Which again comes out of mysticism and Kabbala.

PW: But by that token Kabballism is also very strong in, eg, Robbe-Grilet. I would say Kabballism runs very strongly through all that French thought. You can see how, for instance, Jabès and Jewish thought feeds into Derrida.[6] There is a very strong streak of Kabballism in Tel Quel. You could look at the 'paragranimes'[7] in that light too. Well, actually, that's a polemical statement. I would say that our film has a pronounced kinship of problematic with modern French theory such as Tel Quel. But I don't accept your statement that Joyce Wieland and Zorns Lemma are mystic and Kabballistic. I see Zorns Lemmaon the Straub side of the interface rather than the Brakhage side, though it does have a neo-Platonist aspect concerning light.

Maybe we should talk about that some other time. Your film appears to progress from theatre to video, from silent mime to direct speech. In view of the ideological connotations attached to the use of video at the present time, such as the notion of ‘direct self-expression’ and other populist notions, don't you think this progress to direct speech through the means of video is a dangerous strategy?

LM: The first thing one has to say is that the mime functions as a prologue it is a run-through of the story, and the film in a sense uses the mime as a starting point. At any rate, the mime is not strictly speaking 'without speech'. It presents a repression of language rather than an absence. One of the things about Kleist's play is precisely the extraordinary quality of its language. Whenever people comment on Kleist's work, it is always about the marvellous quality of his literary language. So the absence of language from a mime based on Kleist'sPenthesilea takes on an extra dimension when seen in this context.

One of the things which interested me was the idea of repetition - ie, repetition of something in different forms, rather than a progression through various stages. The first sequence is a mime and therefore it has no manifest speech, but as I said earlier, verbal language is not merely absent from it, it is repressed. In the second sequence, you have the spoken word and the written word coinciding and acting against each other, blocking each other out at times. In the third sequence you have the written word of the titles and the inarticulate search for a new form of speech on the sound track. In the fourth section, you have the titles of the old silent film and speech, ie, Jessie Ashley's words, and mixed in, you have indistinct voices in the background which intermingles with the sound of machinery. In the fifth sequence you have all of that repeated, inaudible speech, spoken and written language etc. In that sense, there is an accumulation of elements rather than a progression.

The ideology of video users in general is that it connects with the possibility of direct speech, such as interviews and people 'speaking for themselves '. This position implies the notion of the subject, fully present in itself, assuming speech as a direct expression of the self. It seems that the ideology of expressivity is at work in the final part of the film, when the actress enounces the ability and need of women to 'speak with their own words'.

PW: No, not really. In a sense, it is an irony. Although she takes off her makeup to get access to verbal language at the same time. When she does speak, it is clearly a performance. It is not 'her’ speech. It is scripted, and she goes through it three times. Basically I think it is a banality.

LM: For instance Debbie, the actress, was very concerned about the way she was supposed to say these last words. My main instruction to her was that if she was in front of the camera and being filmed as a performer she knew that she was performing and that the scene was a continuation of the performance. In that sense, she could never be ‘herself’. I liked the idea, in terms of the development of the film, ie, ending the film by going back to the beginning and then breaking out of the seeming circularity at the last 'moment. Again that goes back to my interest in repetition and, of course, she repeats her last words...But probably more important is the whole thing about the presence and absence of language, throughout the whole film and underlying it is a kind of women's questioning of language and the symbolic order and law.

PW: The question is if we had a non-patriarchal symbolic order, what would the language be in that situation? What would the non-patriarchal ‘word' be? And it is banal in the sense that we didn't suggest that this language already exists, or that people already have access to it. It is a kind of banal statement that such a language could exist.

LM: A similar problem underlies the Jessie Ashley speech. One of the problems she puts forward is precisely her inability to be, 'heard', in that she doesn't speak the language of the bourgeoisie but nevertheless she isn't heard by the working class. Her language isn't heard by either side. She can't find the language to be heard. She had started off in this very optimistic vein, thinking she only had to tell people and people would hear and see the obviousness of the manifest fact that the suffrage movement should align itself with the working class movement. Gradually she becomes more desperate and more isolated throughout the speech, ending in voluntary silence.

PW: And as far as the ideological relationship of language and video is concerned, what interested us, as indicated by the little quote about Freud'sNotes upon the Magic Writing Pad,[8] was the notion of video as a system of perception and memory, which Freud talks about in terms of erasure, re-cycling and so on. But this in terms of memory rather than speech. The video, in that it is so different from the mime at the beginning and yet it reproduces that mime, it is in a sense a form of remembering it.

Isn't there a possible contradiction between section two, which poses the problem of the dispersal of the subject, and sequences four and five which posit the need to find a new speech?

LM: There are two basic problems in the film. One is the question of phantasy and the other is the question of political practice. The new language can only be seen in terms of the question: how do you change language in order to change your political practice and how to use it to change phantasy as well, in terms of the symbolic order.

PW: The need to find a new language is not the same as calling for a new expressive speech. That is not the same problem. The question is whether the new order of language necessarily has to be attached to a patriarchal system. In relation to the myth of the Amazons, which is by definition a society without a patriarchal law, the film presents a critique of this myth, of the notion that the Amazons would be a completely separate order outside history. The question the film poses is: can that new symbolic law, of which' the Amazon myth is in some respects a representation in phantasy, be inserted into history? That is the central problematic of the film, and the ending should be read in relation to that question. Video certainly is not seen as ‘the new language', that would be a misunderstanding.

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