Reclaiming the Archive: Feminism and Film History

By Brower, Sue | Journal of Film and Video, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Reclaiming the Archive: Feminism and Film History

Brower, Sue, Journal of Film and Video

RECLAIMING THE ARCHIVE: FEMINISM AND FILM HISTORY Vicki Callahan, ed. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010, 460 pp.

Many women film studies scholars would agree that there remains a gender imbalance-in film and media representations surely, but also in the study of film theory and film history. Vicki Callahan has brought together a monumental volume that addresses these slights and erasures, grouping the twenty original essays of Reclaiming the Archive into four sections- reception, authorship, early cinema, and the postfeminist future. Interweaving feminist theory, film theory, and film history, these articles apply key principles and diverse methodologies to a wide range of topics, including unknown or forgotten films and digital work; women filmmakers, writers, and performers; and female spectators and participants.

Many of the scholars included in this collection are familiar names (such as Laura Mulvey, Janet Staiger, Annette Kuhn, Yvonne Tasker, and Patricia White), and many more have produced work here that will find them included not only in the feminist film theory course (which was Callahan's inspiration for the collection) but also in the standard film theory and history classes. These essays demonstrate awareness of the feminist film scholar's role in relation to film history and film theory as well as the continuing importance of feminism as social activism. Thus, although each article addresses a specific media text or individual(s)-itself a reclamation-there is an ongoing critique of past and present theory and criticism.

Laura Mulvey's "Unmasking the Gaze: Feminist Film Theory, History, and Film Studies" exemplifies this approach (17-31), recontextualizing and critiquing her own landmark essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," which was based on textual analysis, the prevailing methodology of the late 1970s. Turning to an analysis of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she traces the fiction from the 1926 Anita Loos novel through a lost 1928 film version and finally to the 1952 film directed by Howard Hawks. Mulvey employs a multivalent approach that combines cultural analysis of the female spectator, the shifting economic strategies and global status of the Hollywood film industry, and the meaning of stars Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, and arrives at a conclusion concerning the role of Hollywood as a national film industry in the 1950s and its ideological significance.

Many of the essays included here similarly use lost, ignored, underappreciated, or misunderstood films and digital media as sites from which to launch robust explorations of text and context, history, and theory. This scholarly versatility appears in Janet Staiger's historical typology and tracing of the "fallen woman." Drawing from nineteenth-century poetry and fiction and then early twentieth-century naturalist novels, Staiger demonstrates with a central example of A Fool There Was (1914) the transformation from the literary "vampire" to the cinematic types of the "vamp" and the femme fatale. Her conclusion speaks of filmmakers' mitigation of this threatening type in order to address male filmgoers of the time.

Joanne Hershfield also draws from literary sources in "Santa and Nation-Building." Hershfield situates Santa (Moreno, 1931), an early sound product of the Mexican film industry, in relation to Mexico's postrevolution history and the demographic shifts that produced a dramatic increase in prostitution in the cities by young girls from the countryside. Hershfield shows how Santa underwent transformations from naturalist novel to silent film to sound film, becoming emblematic of Mexico's modernity. As a sound film, it contributed to the postrevolution regeneration of the Mexican film industry. This is a valuable glimpse into the rise of a national cinema, in part because of its difference from the US industry.

Reclaiming the Archive includes a number of fascinating star studies. Victoria Duckett examines Sarah Bernhardt's appearance in a short, experimental sound film for the Paris Exposition in 1900, delving into Bernhardt's roles as producer, performer, and star in the dueling scene from Hamlet. …

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