Put into Practice: Laura Mulvey interview

Renowned theorist and writer Laura Mulvey gives an insight into her and Peter Wollen's collaborative film practice of the 70s and 80s

Feature by Adam Benmakhlouf | 02 Oct 2017

Throughout early October, Dundee’s Cooper Art Gallery presents evening and weekend screenings of the experimental film work from the 70s and 80s of renowned critics Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen. Mulvey – widely known for writing the urtext on the male gaze, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema – discusses the pre-Thatcherite period that allowed for a looser demarcation of writers, filmmakers, theory and experimental film.

Mulvey locates these works as both a response to Hollywood cinematic conventions and as propelled by the experimental film movement that was arising during the late 1960s. She names some groups that were central to this moment, including the London Filmmakers’ Co-Op, the first British Independent Film Festival in Bristol, and also the Edinburgh Film Festival as a platform for experimental and avant-garde film. The kind of work that was being made in these circles ranged from avant-garde purist modern work right through to agitprop documentary. “And we were in there somewhere,” Mulvey alludes to the idiosyncrasy of her and Wollen’s output, who were distinguished for their continuing interest in narrative, and inclusion of music and writing within their works.

Mulvey and Wollen specifically chose to adapt narratives that were relevant to feminist thought: “The first film was about the myth of the Amazons, the second film about the Sphinx and Oedipus, the next about Amy Johnson, the lone flyer.” Considering what might have been an idiosyncratic interest in narrative and myth within experimental film, Mulvey explains: “Our involvement with the cinema had been in the first instance as cinephiles, but as film fans that were also interested in politics.” This in turn drew them both to theory.

Nevertheless, Mulvey identifies the wider trend of film being considered as “an essentially political medium” as the most important context, and one which was strengthened “by the impact of feminism”. Part of this was an interest in critiquing films on the basis of their form, not only the content. For example, in one of their films Mulvey and Wollen instructed the “extraordinarily brilliant and skilled” cinematographer Diane Tammes to make their 1977 film Riddles of the Sphinx using 360 degree panning shots, so that important parts of the film would comprise of revolving tableaux.

Thinking of how relevant these films are now, Mulvey points towards both practical and socio-political changes that time-mark the films. As well as the importance of 16mm film to their making, Mulvey also thinks of their epoch “as a last pre-Thatcherite moment, when there was a residue of optimism and utopianism that was shattered during the Thatcher period.”

With respect to the Hollywood cinema trends that were so important to Mulvey and Wollen’s theory and practice in the 70s and 80s, does Mulvey sense any change between then and now? “It seems as though Hollywood is more mainstream than ever.” In particular, there’s a tendency for “falling back on repetition and brands. If you had asked me five years ago, I would have said nothing has changed, but I think there are inklings of change. There’s a strong sense within independent film that women need to be shown on the screen and for an increase in women writers and directors to be recognised.”

Mulvey sounds a more positive note when thinking about certainaspects of contemporary filmmaking. “I feel very strongly that feminism and the progressive principles that seemed to have vanished in the intermediate decade have now come back very strongly. Young people have a great sense of political commitment, not necessarily with the utopianism we had at that time.” Thinking of the time period that the Cooper Gallery focus on with these screenings, Mulvey sees a nuanced uptake of some of the 70s and 80s ideals she remembers. “People are now looking back on that period without necessarily making direct parallels, finding it inspiring but not necessarily thinking it has to be the same now."

Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, Urgency and Possibility: Counter-Cinema in the 70s and 80s, various times, until 7 Oct, Cooper Gallery, Dundee