Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 5, No. 2, 1992
Film: Matters of Style
Edited by Adrian Martin

A writer's tale

Felicity Collins

Review: Patricia Mellencamp, Indiscretions: Avant-Garde Film, Video & Feminism (Bloomington & Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 1990).

Patricia Mellencamp's collection of essays reads like the written residue of an act of dreaming. The material of her dream is a diverse and disparately ordered repertoire of film events, personalities, quotations, anecdotes, jokes, conversations and speculations occurring in the cubby-holes of academia and across the alternating sites of countercultural America. History matters but not chronology. The sites are limited but dispersed across and between continents. The dream itself is less the stuff of visions than it is the process of a consciousness governed by the flux of its own undertows. Mellencamp's writing, like the dream, has something to tell us, mixing the everyday with the wish, the individual with the collective, yet its meaning is neither explicit nor singular.

To review this book is to risk merely translating Mellencamp's associative logic into an academically certifiable form. To do so would be to turn a blind eye to Mellencamp's style - a significant and welcome shift away from the (routinely academic) style which has come to signify American feminist film theory during the book publishing years of the late 1980s, when the essays in this collection were being written.

Mellencamp's style (and her aspiration) is epitomised by the way she quotes Deleuze and Guattari, concurrently describing her own mode of critique while furthering her reading of Owen Land's film, On the Marriage Broker Joke:

Most critically, "The important thing is never to reduce the unconscious, to interpret it or make it signify following the tree model, but rather to produce the unconscious and, along with it, new utterances and other desires [precisely the goal of feminist critique, along with unbalancing the poles of power]. The rhizome is precisely this production of the unconscious." (p.207)

The production of new utterances and other desires, capable of unsettling the poles of power, is the kind of rhizomatic critique to which Mellencamp aspires. It's why I liken her book to the writing out of a dream, and it's what reprieves me from the task of fossicking out and cataloguing something like the central tenets of her argument. The book doesn't have a primary argument or hypothesis to lend itself an aura of unity. It doesn't subscribe to a theory, or place itself within a singular scholarly tradition. Rather, it wants not to do a certain kind of academic writing, to subscribe to theoretical orthodoxies or to promote authoritarian forms of scholarship.

Paradoxically, the speed with which this writing jets between different concerns (avant garde film as theory; romanticism of the artist as moral hero; 1960s countercultural embrace of biological/technological systems theories; shifts from a culture of difference to a neo-conservative culture of differentiation; the centrality of the transformation of the everyday in any radical re-vision--ing of American culture; postmodernism's fascination with feminism; feminism's deconstruction and repudiation of modernism) necessitates a slow, repetitive reading. The flow of ideas is like that notorious flow of television. Sudden shifts and detours divert the reader away from the possibility of constructing an argument, a theory or a history from this book.

The most prominent feature of this collection of writings is the way each essay tells us, at fortuitous moments, exactly what it's about. Time and again Mellencamp uses a definitive quote (from her favoured continental theorists: Barthes, Benjamin, Foucault, de Certeau, Deleuze and Guattari) to make a suggestion or to force home an analogy, while simultaneously declaring her own processes and values, especially in several labyrinthine chapters on the complicated manouevres of a feminist critic through the minefields of postmodernism.

Mellencamp, inadvertently or otherwise, treats quotations as found objects, rather than as the starting point for elaborating or packaging theory for consumption. Her use of quotes reveals those moments of recognition which motivate her to engage with particular films in relation to 'coincidental' theories. Her refusal to adopt an explicatory style enables her writing to stay in the moment of her own desire to produce the unconscious. The essays are full of occasions of gleeful discovery of relations of synchronicity between those theorists and those films which take her fancy - in this case Da Fort by Rob Danielson, films by Owen Land, Bleu Shut by Robert Nelson, and So Is This by Michael Snow ("all avant garde versions of Keaton's College"):

Avant garde filmmakers have known about surveillance and simulation and unraveled both social metaphors in ironic, if unwitting, comic remakes of Foucault and Baudrillard. Working against mastery, against institutions of discipline, whether art or pedagogy, they play with rather than decry panopticons and simulacra, in an irreverence for their context - academia. (p.73)

However, Mellencamp's use of quotations is not just another postmodernist strategy. The quotes work as something to hold onto in the dark, as acts of writing which re-animate the Zeitgeist without prescribing action or embalming films as good/bad political objects. One of the book's trajectories is fuelled by a spirit of commitment to the radical impulse in avant garde film, continental theory and international feminism, at a moment in history when the possibility of radical social change is extremely constrained. Again Mellencamp reflects upon her own position when she discusses her re-reading of Jonas Mekas' journal:

It is precisely Mekas's belief that art is linked with everyday life, the ordinary, the detail, the present, combined with his willingness for a variety of experiences, all propelled by a radical impulse that avoids binary, hierarchical systems that most attracts me. (p.198)

In Mellencamp's case, substitute film, feminism and continental theory for 'art'.

To orchestrate a literary encounter between avant garde film and video(American), continental theory

(mostly French) and feminist critique (mostly American) constitutes a provocative act of academic indiscretion on Mellencamp's part. It doesn't keep things separate. It writes without always knowing exactly what it wants to say. It leaves connections to chance. It knows things it cannot quite write down. Mellencamp's starting point is her own experience in these discrete realms as convenor, host, teacher, publicist, conference-goer and, belatedly, writer dealing with "the shift from a culture of difference and opposition to a culture of differentiation and dispersion" (p.208).

To read Mellencamp's rendition of this imagined mĀ­nage between feminism, theory and the avant garde is to tangle with the elusive familiarity of its images, scenes, exchanges and motifs. It is also to tangle with the hierarchy between theory, feminism and film. I first saw these films, read these continental theorists in a course taught in 1982 by Meaghan Morris, whose writing voice rises and falls through the pages of Mellencamp's book. Many of the worries which haunt this text are the worries which shadow me and my generation of tenuously institutionalised feminist intellectuals: the voiding of feminism via academic appropriations of seismic cultural shifts including those experiences and phenomena we call postmodern/post feminist/post capitalism; the sense that the rhetoric of radicalism is now difficult to mouth let alone act upon; a suspicion that rigorous theoretical practice primarily reproduces the mimetic rigour underwriting a proliferation of articles, journals, courses and student essays; a skepticism of the new forms of conservatism enticing members of the academy onto a deal-making circuit which now signals where it's at in academe, as Mellencamp so deftly puts it:

With this profitable nomadology of fashionable theorists (and the increasing discrepancy between superstar and yeoman faculty replicating the social schism between rich and poor, white and "of color") the formation of local intellectual communities has changed. (p.206)

It's curious that these shared film viewings, continental readings and political dilemmas have led to different evaluations of the films of Sally Potter and Yvonne Rainer. The reception these filmmakers received in Australia, especially amongst feminists of a theoretical bent, has been decidedly cooler and more ambivalent than that accorded them by Mellencamp and by Teresa de Lauretis (in her book Technologies of Gender). For Mellencamp, Potter's film The Gold Diggers "is either the culmination or the conclusion of 1970s feminist film theory"(p.158), while Rainer's The Man Who Envied Women "is an idiosyncratic thesaurus of contemporary theory and personal response to daily life, art and feminism, an artist's history of sexuality and politics" (p.174).

The polite sobriety of the Rainer event in Melbourne last year led me to imagine what it must be like to be doing this kind of work in the United States. The siege mentality of Rainer's theorised political response to American popular culture, especially Hollywood and television, seemed

Puritan in its dour moralism, if not in its anti-market reflex. This stance has not been popular amongst academic

feminists in Australia for at least a decade. It does, however, provide a clue to the origins of two contrary impulses pulling apart Mellencamp's text. For all that Mellencamp's style strives toward, and often achieves, a looser, more funky play between theoretical and avant garde film texts, this play is policed by surprising incidents of literalism.

Mellencamp's tendency to discover in a film that which enacts a theoretical idea, for instance, sexuality and the repression hypothesis, surveillance and simulation, sometimes smacks of deference to the legitimising power of theory, for all that her writing style disavows a central authority. One outcome is the posing of films by Potter and Rainer as carefully exemplary feminist texts - ones which illustrate a contemporary theoretical model. Perhaps the crime which must be policed by literalism is that of spillage - those elements of texts that refuse to be reduced to, or explained by a theoretical grid are gobbled up by an inbuilt waste disposal unit which ensures the hygienic effect of many American feminist texts.

Mellencamp's chapter on Cecilia Condit's tabloid video work performs this prescriptive literalism at the same time that it wants to hold out the promise of a more open road for feminist filmmaking and critique. In her reading of Condit's work, Mellencamp draws on Benjamin to advocate as feminist the act of storytelling (and, in the last chapter, the art of the strayer):

Unlike all the recent declarations of the death of feminism because completed, old hat, a failure, or a mistake, the public, artistic formulation of female subjects, desires, pleasures and peculiarities continues to "unfold" fifty years after Benjamin's words; the "communicability" of women's private experiences is going massively, transgressively public. (p.139).

At the same time, storytelling and straying are modes that Mellencamp practises in her own writing, opening up the question of how to write in ways that circumvent the central dilemma of the historically prescriptive relation between theory, feminism and film. While Indiscretions is far too frenetically paced to answer to the demands of good housekeeping, and while it does question some of the central tenets of feminist/film theory, it authorises itself, finally, by spreading the net of theory over much that comes into its purview. The panic of everyday mess is contained by the panacea of theory which puts things in their place. Jokes, gossip and anecdotes mutedly acknowledge those experiences or events which escape the net. Mellencamp's book is a sustained elaboration of a recent historical experience which is remarkable for its peculiarly textual determinations. In that sense, it's the experience of an American intellectual, in relation to the various texts which constitute her as an intellectual and which enable her writing practice, which is the subject of Indiscretions.

New: 6 November, 1995 | Now: 21 March, 2015