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

By Turvey, Malcolm | Framework, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

"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

I

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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?