The Rhythm of Happening: Antagonism and Community in Brenda Longfellow's Our Marilyn and A Balkan Journey

By Dickinson, Adam | Canadian Journal of Film Studies, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

The Rhythm of Happening: Antagonism and Community in Brenda Longfellow's Our Marilyn and A Balkan Journey


Dickinson, Adam, Canadian Journal of Film Studies


Resume: Bien qu'ils soient differents au niveau de la forme, les documentaires de Brenda Longfellow Our Marilyn et A Balkan Journey: Fragments for the Other Side of War partagent certaines strategies qui examinent les rapports empathiques entre le corps des femmes et la collectivite. Ces rapports peuvent etre etudies a la lumiere de ce qu'Ernesto Leclau et Chantal Mouffe appellent " l'antagonisme ", a savoir, les differends qui habitent toujours les systemes discursifs qui tentent de constituer une totalite unifiee. L'antagonisme dans Our Marilyn s'erige contre les identites nationales et autres mythes nationaux. Dans A Balkan Journey l'antagonisme se retrouve dans de nombreuses activites pratiquees par les femmes et qui defient les structures patriarcales de leur pays.

In her essay "Postmodernism and the Discourse of the Body," Brenda Longfellow suggests that if film is to have any political vocation at all, it will be in the way it creates an empathetic relation between bodies.1 Longfellow's statement implies that social transformation emerges from an ethic of response to the body, other bodies, and the place of the body in the nation. Any social politics is in part dependent on these local empathetic responses. In Our Marilyn (Canada, 1987), Longfellow attends closely to the corporeal rhythms of the female body and its relation to subjectivity, myth and nation. As a documentary from the perspective of a fictional woman named Marilyn who attempts to come to terms with her subjectivity, which is divided between competing interests in Marilyn Monroe and Marilyn Bell, the film challenges the unproblematic identities of women put forward by the nation and its media. In addition to the close empathetic relationship between the narrator and the labour and the hardship of the two Marilyns, the filmmaker herself is in close proximity to the swimmer as she stands in for Bell, filming herself in the water to substitute for the non-existent footage of the middle part of the swim.

Longfellow's more recent documentary, A Balkan Journey: Fragments from the Other Side of War (Canada, 1996), similarly represents a close, empathetic relationship between the filmmaker and the women in the film. There is no attempt to hide the personal, subjective experience of the filmmaker/narrator during the filming process. The narrator is physically absent from the film, yet her observations are consistent with and underscore the empathy that occurs across such absences and gulfs, be they ethnic, spiritual, or geographic for the women in the film.

Both films are interventions in masculinist public culture. This is made explicit in Longfellow's expose of the war culture of the Balkans in A Balkan Journey and her problematizing of conventional, mansculinist images of femininity in Our Marilyn. Whereas the latter focuses on the experience of the narrator and her emerging sense of subjectivity amidst masculine assertions of national and sexual identity, the former examines a number of women-centred collectivities that have developed in the former Yugoslavian cities of Belgrade, Zagreb, and Sarajevo in order to glimpse how women are refusing to be defined by the state's xenophobic and patriarchal program.

The empathetic proximity created by Longfellow in these two films is more than simply a bond between female bodies and among female collectivities; it is an impetus for what I want to understand as "antagonism," for an interruption of closed discursive systems that attempt to occlude the body and limit female politics. Antagonism, as will be further discussed, is usefully defined in Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe's book, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, as the difference that always inhabits a discursive system that attempts to constitute a unified totality. Antagonism is the limit of the social inasmuch as it is "a witness of the impossibility of a final suture" in any effort to construct society.2 Moreover, it is also operative at the level of the subject in that the other, in preventing me from being fully myself, antagonizes my fixed identity. …

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