Vexing: Britta Sjogren's Jo-Jo at the Gate of Lions screens in her Into the Vortex: Female Voice and Paradox in Film program at the PFA.

Britta Sjogren and "Women's Film"

Max Goldberg July 16, 2009

Film theory, as any media-inclined graduate student will tell you, is full of gloomy prognostications about what can and cannot be done within cinema. Many of us find the deterministic mode of much theoretical writing dispiriting. A rare few are invigorated by it; an even smaller number are able to mold their fascination into original work. Local filmmaker-scholar Britta Sjogren is one of these talents. In her 2006 book, Into the Vortex: Female Voice and Paradox in Film, Sjogren threads her vexations with feminist film theory into a lively study of sound and voice in classical Hollywood cinema, bringing fresh curiosity and intelligence to taken-for-granted "women’s film" touchstones like Letter from an Unknown Woman and Rebecca. An acclaimed filmmaker in her own right, Sjogren is perhaps more open to contradiction than her purely theoretical counterparts. She revisits her book’s terrain with a six-week program at the Pacific Film Archive spanning a wide range of ’40s conundrums and closing with her own feature debut, 1992’s Jo-Jo at the Gate of Lions.

SF360: Could you tell me a little about the genesis of the book project the Into the Vortex program is based on?

Britta Sjogren: It was originally my dissertation. I got my PhD at UCLA, and I was getting my MFA at the same time. I became interested in voice and sound, both from a theoretical and filmmaking point-of-view. I studied the work of feminist filmmakers and became imbricated in questions of film theory that pertained to the representations of women. I started looking at ways in which people had been thinking about voice as a possible means for representing female subjectivity—looking at experimental filmmakers like Marguerite Duras, Chantal Ackerman, Yvonne Rainer, and a lot of women in the ’70s and ’80s who were taking that as a formal strategy to try to communicate something that went beyond what the image could supposedly provide. So that’s where I first became interested in voice, and then I was simultaneously compelled by a number of classical Hollywood films that I felt worked powerfully to communicate something about their female protagonist, and that cultivated a kind of identification that I found troubling as a feminist. Even as I knew that these films were objectifying their protagonists and misogynist in many ways, I still felt that there was a femininity at stake and a subjectivity granted to their protagonists that I could recognize. At the time I was studying, there was quite a bit of pessimism within feminist film theorist circles about the possibility of classical Hollywood cinema in any way communicating to a female audience member in terms that did not simply oppress or objectify her or force her to identify with a completely masochistic position. That was my goal, to see, well, do I agree with this? Because as a filmmaker, I felt that if I agreed with it, then I was on some level acknowledging that the thesis that the image centers a male subject, that there isn’t room for a female subject, would mean that it didn’t really matter whether it was a female author or a male author making the film.

SF360: Did your first film [Jo-Jo at the Gates of Lions], which is closing the series, predate this written work?

Sjogren: It really was contemporary with my first writings in that area. I had written a paper on Letter from an Unknown Woman, which was probably the first, most important film for me in terms of what I was studying. I was thinking a lot about how voice worked in that film, and when I was writing Jo-Jo, I was completely imbricated in thinking about voice and how to dismantle or deconstruct or lay bare certain trappings of conventional narration. So I’d say that the two really informed each other. I had long finished Jo-Jo by the time I wrote the dissertation. Certainly the basic premise is the same, but the book is much more involved than the dissertation was. I rewrote it a few times since then, and I had finished my second and third films by the time the book was published. As I continued to work on this particular theoretical question, I was continuing to practice filmmaking and moving in new directions with that.

SF360: How did approaching some of these problems as an artist and filmmaker inform the way you were looking at these old Hollywood films?

Sjogren: I really try not to think about my filmmaking as a theoretical exercise. My mentor Janet Bergstrom, who teaches at UCLA, once said something about my work that I greatly appreciated: She said that it seemed like I had internalized theory rather than applying it. When I came to a place of wanting to make films, I had to put aside my theoretical hat and ask myself, What do I want to do, and try to be almost naÏve about it. I don’t really think I can be naÏve. There are lessons I’ve learned from the history of filmmaking, from filmmakers who have come before me and also from theorists who have thought so deeply about all of these issues. I hope that they inform my work, because they’re all brilliant people that have given me a window onto what cinema is. But I don’t sit down and think, okay, how do I want to communicate to a female spectator?

SF360: You don’t structure your filmmaking with Venn diagrams or anything.

Sjogren: Right, exactly. I think I probably work a lot like any other filmmaker. You experiment, you try things, you work with both conscious and unconscious instincts, and you learn from your mistakes.

SF360: That idea of relying on both conscious and unconscious instincts makes me think of the films in the series. Many of these movies have been written and rewritten by theory—they’ve become master texts. In your program notes, it seems like you’re really saying, let’s watch them again, fresh. Maybe it’s a silly question, but how did you first experience these films, and how has your sense of them changed over time?

Sjogren: I first saw some of these films as an undergraduate at Berkeley. I’m not sure when I first saw Letter from an Unknown Woman—I think it was when I was living in Paris, studying through an education abroad program. And of course, living in Paris is for any cinephile a moveable feast. I saw about six films a day, and ironically many of those films were classical Hollywood films I had never had an opportunity to see before. Initially, I saw these films and experienced them as we all do on the first viewing, completely in terms of pleasure and affect and interest. And then, as one has to write about film as a student, you watch them a few more times and you start to question how they work. I’d had my training as a graduate student before I went to Paris to study at UCLA, with Janet Bergstrom and others who really had an exacting mode of doing textual analysis in film, and I learned so much from all of them, and also from what they had written. You keep getting to know the films better…

SF360: And from different angles.

Sjogren: Yes. You know, first I learned textual analysis, and then I became really interested in psychoanalytic views of spectatorship. All of these things start to fold in on themselves. And then obviously I had to become well-versed in sound theory. In terms of the films being very familiar or canonical, ultimately I felt they were still important, even though many of them have been written about to death, particularly Letter from an Unknown Woman. If you look at [Edward] Branigan’s Narrative Comprehension and Film and see how he’s laid out what everyone has said about this one film, it’s totally fascinating. Why are we so obsessed with some of these films? Well, we’re obsessed with them because they are exceedingly complex in how they connect with us. And yet, on a certain level, a lot these films haven’t been thought about in terms of sound because we tend to value the image as primary. One might even argue that every film that’s ever been written about needs to be rethought in terms of sound, although I wouldn’t go that far. But certainly, with regard to these canonical texts, they would merit further investigation on that level.

SF360: One thread I see going through a lot of the films is that regardless of genre they are all very complex narrations, whether that’s a flashback-within-a-flashback in The Locket or multiple perspective in several other titles. What are some of the important attributes of this "vortex" narrative you write about?

Sjogren: That was one of the things that I observed in selecting the films and delineating what kind of work I was going to be writing about. Obviously, I was looking for films with a female voice-over, and of course there were quite a few of them from the 1940s and early 50s, but not as many as you would think. Even some of the films that I’ve programmed, they only have one or two lines of narration, like the beginning of Rebecca. But yet, the question of voice is fundamental to these films. Many of them also have this preoccupation with temporal disjunction, plurality of points-of-view being presented, contradiction and paradox between the image and the sound, and a strong, vigorous stasis that often held up the narrative and made it go in a sort of vertical direction, along the lines of how Maya Deren talks about verticality in textual progression. It seems like a very interesting coincidence, perhaps, that these films often take this kind of form, and it has a kind of formal effect and perhaps a psychoanalytic effect and certainly a narrative effect, in terms of constructing a narration that departs from what we think of as the conventional classic form of causal linearity, but rather something that is circular, ‘static,’ vortexical, leading to a kind of interior recess that a lot of feminists have looked at as a very pejorative space within the text—which is something I still don’t really understand but wanted to suggest that it isn’t necessary to look at it that way.

SF360: When people talk about the difference of the theatrical experience, it’s always in terms of the size of the image. Given the subject of your series, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on how the shared theatre space informs our experience of voice and sound.

Sjogren: That’s a great question, but I can’t say I’ve thought it through. Personally, I think the experience of being in a theatre is really important in terms of processes of identification and being caught up in a narrative space—certainly in being caught up in an image space, but also in an acoustic space: you’re enveloped in sound. Even if we accept what Metz has written that we’re all individual infantilized subject in from of the image, there still is a sense of a community and a regression in common with others. And I don’t think we can completely ignore that there is a social component to cinema-going. We’re becoming more and more separated in our spectatorship. All I can say is that it’s sad, and I regret it, but there are obviously other forms of community emerging through new technologies—it remains to be seen what will be done with them.

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