Author: James, David E
Date published: October 1, 2011
Journal code: MLFJ
But woman has sex organs more or less everywhere.
- Luce Irigaray
In the visual density of its heavily worked style, in its domestic, artisanal practice that identifies home movies as art film, and its use of film as a participant in erotic activity, Fuses (19 64-67) is an essay within the mode developed by Stan Brakhage. But it also extends that mode, organizing a critique of it, and bringing to a fuller articulation cinematic possibilities he innovated but did not entirely resolve. In Fuses, a new copulation between the filmic and the erotic is traced, one where female sexuality is enacted in a practice of mutuality.
Dissatisfied with Brakhage's representation of her sexuality in Loving (1957) and Cat's Cradle (1959), the films he made about her relationship with James Tenney, Carolee Schneemann made her own vision, one that addresses the phallocentric imbalance of even Brakhage's best attempts to share authorship with a lover in the profilmic space. In doing so she was able to address the repression in culture generally of what she understood as the female principle. Her film is, then a polemically female representation of heterosexual eroticism, one that demonstrates its difference in almost all the phases of its production.
Schneemann's intimate and graphic representation of sexual intercourse was historically anomalous; its explicitness appeared anti-feminist in the contexts of feminist attempts to differentiate erotica from pornography, and its fascination with the male as much as the female body was unusual outside homosexual pornography. As in Brakhage's participation films, this egalitarian representation follows from the lovers photographing each other during lovemaking, though Schneemann also photographed herself and used camera stands to photograph herself and Tenney together. The editing was entirely Schneemanns own work, but otherwise labor was not divided in the production of the profilmic nor in its recording. Thus reproduction of gender in power relations in the profilmic or in the control of the apparatus was avoided, as was phallocratie distribution of roles - the male as the scopophilic subject and the female as its object. The film so thoroughly interweaves shots of Schneemann and shots from her point of view, shots of Tenney and shots from his point of view, and of the two of them from no attributable point of view that narratorial positioning is entirely dissolved. The only stable persona implied is a black cat, its manifest sensuality is a purring correlative to the action, reminding us that in the textual plurality of the film's enfolding, it illustrates the pussy's point of view.
Within this plurality, the organizing telos of the male orgasm - the end that orders the narrative and representational systems of contemporary pornography - is shunned. The montage does not insert the shots into the rhetorical figures of orthodox narrative economy, but rather disperses authorship and subjectivity as generalized functions of an indeterminate erotic field. Emotions are legible on the participants' faces and their existence outside sexual passion is fragmentarily glimpsed (but then only in contexts that feed back metaphorically into the iconographie field - she running on the beach and he driving a car), but these do not articulate psychological dimensions of character. The lovers are not unified, discrete subjects within the erotic activity, so much as the vehicle of an eroticism that possesses them.
The urgency in which their individual lineaments are subsumed inheres as thoroughly in Schneemanns physical encounter with the material of film as it does in her encounter with the body of James Tenney. Emerging as the totalizing, polymorphous, introverted energy and self-absorbed hypersensuality of the sexual activity of the profilmic, die erotic power of Fuses overflows into the filmic, and is reproduced there as a filmic function. For the physical passion traced photographically is returned upon in Schneemanns excitation of the physical body of the film in editing, the touch of her hand on the film's body in her painterly and sculptural work on the emulsion. In the film's own eroticism, its auto-eroticism, its skin is slipped upon the celluloid, displaced from the closure of mimetic identification and freed from the economy of its syntax, suddenly a tactile material, palpably aroused. The texturing of superimposition, of rhythmic disjunction and return, and the scratching, painting, dyeing, the fusing and refusing of represented flesh are thus both correlative in their visceral energy to the sexual encounter the film reproduces (its dalliance with memory) and itself the site of a textural eroticism in which the work (or play) on the body of film renews the congress, coming back to it (its encounter with desire).
The experience of the projected film, the trace of this epidermic intimacy, reproduces her palpation in another sensual register, that of light. An optical promiscuity in which the slippage of the boundaries of the self experienced in love-making recurs visually in the seepage of figure into ground, and image into medium; the bodies fixed, not spatially, not materially, not durationally; they merge and rhythmically emerge into a clarity which cannot be held but is carried away in the flux of unlocalized optical sensation (produced without return to humanist narrative economy), sterile and profligate. As color, texture, form and other properties of the photographic find themselves free from the self-effacing aphanisis of transparent representation, they become attributes of concupiscent light, a psychedelic projection which, as it illuminates the lovers' bodies, receives its body from them, indulgence shimmering, echoing and supplementing the pleasure of the engorged penis as the mouth takes it, pandering to the vagina's pleasure as fingers open its lips to light: outside commerce: the film fuses.
In completing Brakhage's domestication of the apparatus for libidinal autobiography, Schneemann opened the full register of his notion of the artist as amateur - one who loves - in an entirely eroticized language and practice; filmmaking became the site of sexual performance, a contract transacted outside the historical and political conditions of women. The possible effect on contemporary film of Schneemann's love in the medium was defused and diffused by the terror her vision conjured. The film could hardly be seen, either by the avant-garde establishment or by the woman's movement. For the latter, her exaltation of woman as an erotic body too closely resembled the exclusion of social responsibilities in the male projection of pornography. Those responsibilities became unavoidable as a feminist position emerged in the political subcultures into which the beat rebellion was forced.
David E. James teaches at the University of Southern California. His most recent book is The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).