"A Neutral . . . Average Way of Looking at Things": The Films of Babette Mangolte

By Turvey, Malcolm | Framework, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview
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"A Neutral . . . Average Way of Looking at Things": The Films of Babette Mangolte

Turvey, Malcolm, Framework

Babette Mangolte is well known today as the cinematographer for a number of major avant-garde and art films, including Lives of Performers (Yvonne Rainer, U.S., 1972) and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantai Akerman, Belgium, 1975). But her own films-What Maisie Knew (U.S., 1975), The Camera: Je (La Camera: I) (U.S., 1977), The Cold Eye (My Darling be Careful) (U.S., 1980), The Sky on Location (U.S., 1982), Visible Cities (U.S., 1991)-have received, with one notable exception, little critical attention since the late 1970s.1 This is perhaps because they eschew, as I argue here, the forms of American avant-garde film dominant in the 1970s and 1980s, even while they engage with and respond to many of the same concerns as these forms. For scholars and artists interested in finding distinct, original alternatives to the prevailing types of avant-garde filmmaking of this period, Mangolte's films constitute a compelling candidate.2


First some ground-clearing.

Mangolte first saw American avant-garde films on her arrival in New York City from her native France in 1970. The dominant form of the time had just been named "structural film" by P. Adams Sitney in an influential essay, the arguments of which continue to be debated to this day-including, most controversially, its claim that structural film continues, rather than breaks with, the "dialogue with the major issues of Romantic thought and art" supposedly initiated in American avant-garde film by Maya Deren in the late 1940s (Sitney 1979, 46). However, there is a consensus among scholars about the basic conventions Sitney was referring to using the name structural film, conventions that came to prominence in the late 1960s.

Most importantly, structural films lack the expressivity (if not expressionism) of the forms of avant-garde nlmmaking dominant from World War II until the mid-1960s. As Sitney points out, unlike, say, the lyrical film perfected by Stan Brakhage, in which the viewer sees "what the film-maker sees; the reactions of the camera and the montage reveal his responses to vision" (Sitney 1979, 370), structural films employ a number of strategies to minimize if not eradicate any expressive connection between themselves and the filmmaker's vision, both mental and physical. Foremost among these is the use of structures, which constitute the primary "content" or "impression" of structural films. These structures, in the form of geometrical shapes or generative systems, remove, in Noël Carroll's words, "a great deal of moment-tomoment decision making and, therefore, expressivity" (Carroll 1985, 304). Rather than expressing the mental or perceptual state of the filmmaker or some other agent, their function is instead "ontological" and "apperceptive," encouraging the viewer to reflect on both the nature of film as a medium and the perceptual and cognitive capacities it engages. Other strategies that function similarly are "fixed camera position ..., the flicker effect, loop printing, and rephotography off the screen" (Sitney 1979, 370).

A classic example is, of course, Wavelength (Michael Snow, U.S., 1967). The film consists of a slow, forty-five-minute zoom across a loft, starting from a long shot of the loft's space and progressing inexorably toward a close-up of a photograph of waves on the loft's wall. While continuous, the zoom is unsteady, punctuated by backward and forward jolts, superimpositions, flares, color filters, and different film stocks. The film's structure-the zoom-constitutes its primary content or impression, for although various "narrative" events occur in the loft, the forward zoom continues irrespective of them, until they are happening offscreen. According to commentators, the zoom toward and into the photograph encourages the viewer to reflect on the nature of cinematic space, its peculiar impression of both depth and flatness. And its unsteady forward progression asks the viewer to think about the nature of perception, the fact that every perceptual act involves, among other things, both recollection and anticipation.

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"A Neutral . . . Average Way of Looking at Things": The Films of Babette Mangolte


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