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Textual Analysis: Back Comb
Chris Darke on Sarah Pucill's Backcomb for the London Production Fund, 1997

In considering Sarah Pucill's Back Comb it is useful to outline two of her earlier films in which themes and approaches visible in her most recent film are introduced. You Be Mother (1990) already demonstrates the Artist's concern with what she calls 'the domestic scene" as the arena in which to address issues of sexuality and the construction of feminine identity. The filmmaker describes the film thus, "Using domestic objects, photo- montaged in a self portrait, the film looks at a woman's struggle to free herself from an imposed role (that) of woman as provider, giver and container of milk and child". The concentration on the social symbolism of objects, and domestic objects in particular and the relationship this has to the constricting ways in which feminine identity is conceived, receives a formal treatment that Pucill has carried across her films. There is the sustained use of the close-up as the dominant formal technique which gives the objects an exaggerated resence. endowing them with the symbolic authority that the filmmaker seeks to establish around them. Such symbolism derives from the functional nature of domestic objects, the social purposes they serve and the gender-specific connotations that follow. In Milk and Glass (1993). Pucill treated "the notion of feeding.... and the cultural ordering that accompanies the food table" and it is this same site that, in Back Comb, provides the environment of claustrophobic unease and violent disruption.

Back Comb explores and dramatises its themes in terms of images and ideas that exist in structured oppositions. For example, one could approach the film by considering the way in which it deals with and employs the following oppositions: black/white, liquid/solid, feminine/masculine. Clearly the film's tonal range is one that works with blacks, whites and greys and these serve to accentuate the marticular symbolic associations that Pucill wishes to foreground. They act to give a maximum contrast between the thick, twisting black hair and the whiteness of tablecloth, nightgown and milk. The use of time-lapse photography in the shooting of the film allows the hair to grow with grotesque and fantastic speed. to move with an almost liquid fluidity and to smash and pierce anything in its way. Yet the dramatic force of this growth and its ungovernable power is not achieved solely through the contrast between tones of black and white. It is significant that this magical and malevolent expression of an almost organic feminine disruptiveness takes place within the well-ordered and structured space of the meal table. Pucill ascribes to this particular environment a set of gendered associations: Masculine solidness is represented in the film within the ritual associated with the table set. This set against the feminine of the unstable, changing shape of the the soft (food, hair clothes) and the liquid in the pottery containers." In addition to the chaos that the hair causes in spreading chaotically through this usually restrained and stable social site, it is clear that Pucill is using the hair itself as both a symbol that expresses female discontent about the patriarchal order represented at the table and as an allegory of the struggle to loosen the grip of such an order on the construction of feminine identity. Such a struggle does not reside symbolically in any one of the opposing terms that Pucill uses to deal with these issues. Rather she does so by being able to call on the connotations attached to the colours, objects. images and physical attributes that she sets to work in the film. Black and white, for example, are not just abstract - but aesthetically crucial - tonal values, they are shades asociated with specific things - hait cloth and milk - and are employed by the filmmaker with these associations in mind: 'The relationship between hair and dining table are related only in terms of the ritualised discipline where the body or hair is cultured or tamed ... black hair represents female desire (the witch, femme fatale, etc) and supernaturalist "dark" forces. The white cotton represents both a denial of her sexuality played Out in the film with the dressing of the table, neutered of character with a white sheet." The film concentrates on its drama of domestic disruption in close-up, and is all the more unnerving for this. Yet, given the sense we get of the length of the table as the hair spreads across it and through its cloth, it is clear that Pucill has invested as much concentration in editing and sound as she has in the predominant strategy of using close-ups. This strategy necessitates a careful use of editing to give a sense of the increasing scale of destruction and violence and therefore requires an acute attention to continuity from shot to shot so that the drama of the narrative escalates comprehensibly Also, we are given only the very minimum of general wide-shots - to establish the space at the opening of the film and to witness the consequences of the growth of the hair at the end of the film - so that the space of the table becomes a space for imagery with provocative and highly sexualised connotations, the hair ripping though the cloth and twining drenched in milk are particular moments that work to represent a feminine sexuality formerly repressed and then unleashed. Such images garner their force not simply because thay are shot in close-up but also through their place in the film and the speed of the cutting towards the film's finale.

Sound is used both diegetically - matching the actions we see and not to divert our attention from the events at hand - but also to enhance atmosphere and to create moods and suggestions that might not be exactly synchronous with a particular action but are motivated by it, So, for example, when the hair coils around and shatters the jug of milk we hear the sound of watet slightly magnified. which continues throughout the film.

Pucill has mentioned the influence of Surrealism - particularly that of early Surrealist film - on her work. One might also add that Surrealist photography was fascinated with the possibility that the camera allowed to show objects in extreme close-up, everyday things thereby being given an unrecognizable apect. The Surrealists were fascinated by the idea that beneath the surface of everyday life there exists disruptive and uncontrollable forces. For them, everyday life was the place that reflected and registered the resulting disturbances. However the fascination that traditional Surrealism (that associated with such names as the founder of French Surrealism Andre Breton, the Spanish filmmaker Luis 8unuel and the photographers Man Ray and Hans Belmer) had in women and female sexuality has since been interpreted by feminism as profoundly misogynist in character. What Pucill does in Back Comb is to reinvest the themes - and some of the formal strategies associated with Surrealism - inflecting them with a feminist sensibility In her film, "the feminine" is neither personified nor idealised but remains symbolic - we never see the face of the woman-with-the-black-hair nor do we hear her speak - but we come to see her as an almost elemental force. Pucill's film seems to be saying that there is no escaping restrictive or oppressive social definitions without some kind of violence, symbolic or otherwise.

Chris Darke
London Production Fund
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