Academic journal article Afterimage

A Mentor Worth Watching: The Films of Giovanna Chesler

Academic journal article Afterimage

A Mentor Worth Watching: The Films of Giovanna Chesler

Article excerpt

Throughout the twentieth century, artists have tried to question and redraw the boundaries of what society considers both sacred and profane. Many of them have used bodily fluids to do so: Marcel Duchamp literally inseminated his painting Paysage Fautif (1946), Mario Merz put shit in a can, and Andres Serrano infamously immersed Christ in a vial of piss. Yet the bodily discharge that is perhaps most naturally aesthetic, most painterly in its consistency and richly varied in its hue, menstrual blood. remains one of the last artistic taboos. The bold Blood Work (1972) proto-feminist artist Carolee Schneemann or Menstruation Bathroom (1979) by Judy Chicago notwithstanding, "period art" as it is called on various Web sites, tends to elicit a cry of "repulsive!" from the public and a critique of "essentialist!" from the academy. No matter how progressive society believes itself to be, the issue of menstruation is still one that provokes the most knee-jerk of reactions and the most stereotypical of responses, Giovanna Chesler is to be commended, then, for courageously beginning her documentary film, Period: The End of Menstruation? (2006), with elegantly crafted paintings made with this organic, if still suspect, media. As the camera intimately lingers over the crimson curlicues and calligraphic feathers made by artist Vanessa Tiegs, one is reminded that the gaze can be retrained. Beauty is first in the eye of the filmmaker and then in the eye of the beholder. By enticing us to follow her lead through the sweeping and glossy arabesques of blood, Chesler's introduction is a brilliant visual metaphor for the subject and pacing of the film itself, and illustrates her power to make the viewer reconsider what they once believed to be a given.

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During her youth on Long Island in the 1980s, Chesler regularly frequented the art cinema in her small town, and while watching such innovative feminist directors as Jane Campion quickly began to comprehend the power of illuminated images screened in darkened, intimate space, Although she intuitively recognized that the constant cinematic mistreatment of women was an injustice she wanted to see righted, at that point she was not aware that she wanted to make films. It was only later, as a senior finishing her BA in anthropology and women's studies at the University of Virginia, that filmmaking arose as a possible vocation. Chesler was quite literally turning in her final exam in a film history class when the professor asked about her post-graduation plans. He opined that she should be a filmmaker, and Chesler abandoned her original plan to study archaeology at Berkeley. She still moved to San Francisco, but began taking classes at the Film Arts Foundation, and was ultimately accepted into the MFA program in Cinema at San Francisco State University (SFSU). Her rapid development and obvious skill as a filmmaker are evident in her multi-award-winning student films from her years SFSU, namely BeauteouS: The Trilogy (2000-02), and hand-some (2004), which she completed while working as an assistant professor in Communication at the University of California, San Diego.

It is clear that Chesler's early academic studies were a formidable influence upon her filmmaking practice, and continue to be so. As such, it would not be a misnomer to term her a filmic ethnographer. (To underscore her indebtedness to women and her allegiance to matrilineal genealogies, Chesler chose to name her production company G6 Pictures, as she is the sixth Giovanna Marie in her family.) Throughout her body of work, one can sense her sincere need to tell the stories of women who have no other means to voice them and she cites Emily Martin, a feminist anthropologist and author of The Woman in the Body (1987), as her biggest influence. Martin's groundbreaking examination of how powerfully cultural myth and supposition determine what is perceived to be natural about the female body, and thus effect how women then envision themselves, persuaded Chesler to re-imagine how women could be presented in the filmic medium. …

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