pixelvision is a grainy black and white video medium
recorded on audio cassette tapes by Fisher-Price toy cameras. Pixelvision
came into fashion in the early 90's when Sadie Benning -- a seventeen-year
old from Milwaukee -- was given a Fisher-Price camera by her father. She
started making clever low-tech short videos -- mostly about being a teenaged
lesbian -- which quickly gained circulation in the independent video scene
making Sadie Benning at bit of an art star while still a teenager. Due
largely to Benning's influence, pixelvision adds a patina of girlish subversion
to most work shot in this medium. betacam is the most professional
and expensive video medium. Betacam cameras cost up to $50,000 and weigh
approximately 30 pounds. Most broadcast video is shot on Betacam. If pixelvision
reads as marginalized babyDyke, Betacam reads as mainstream toughGuy
There was no name for it For me, this first voiceover begins to describe the problems being addressed here as, first and foremost, problems with accessability to language and the failure to recognize young girls as having an iota of authority -- even over their own bodies.
ELISABETH SUBRIN is the maker of this videotape. This first shot of her captures the feel of 70's feminism well -- the icon of the natural, carefree, but citybound, woman. Subrin's 'performance' of this character makes me think of Frederic Jameson's ideas on pastiche and parody. Pastiche plays up and complicates the roles of irony and tribute expressed in parody. When Subrin spins, she's making fun of it, but she means it.
The camera watches. The camera's dominance is established by its position in the room -- it's a surveillance camera. Surveillance and medical footage are most likely to be read as 'objective' by an audience, most likely to strip a subject of any authority he or she might have. It's no coincidence this documentary film chooses take on the trope of surveillance while trying to pinpoint 'abnormal behavior'.
A deep male voice The perfect aural companion for
surveillance footage is the voice-of-God narrator. Its now enough of a
cliche that audiences usually know when a filmmaker is making fun of it.
But, as Bahktin suggested in his discussion of the authoritative word in
novelistic discourse, most representations of authority retain some aspect
of their power even when toyed with.
the search for cures This is the beginning of an organizing trope. From here on, Swallow takes on the form of a search. Cameras search for clues (like the surveillance camera) as the filmmaker searches for meaning in old artifacts from her girlhood. Evidence acquired takes the form of numbered lists.
dressed as the secretary This is an effective form of subversion. It pays tribute to Cindy Sherman -- an artist who photographs herself 'playing' different stereotypes as represented in old Hollywood narrative films.
pull out track right the sound is from the
film Blade Runner. In that film, one of Decker's detecting tools
is a mechanical device which explores and enhances photographs. Decker
uses the device to gather information about suspects. A cartesian grid
overlays the image, a grid which Subrin duplicates in her videotape. It
suggests that some useful data can be gleaned by looking at this subject.
narrator I know Subrin fretted over whether or
not to include a voiceover at all, fearing a betrayal of her roots in 'avant-garde'
filmmaking -- a practice which has historically eschewed a voiceover exactly
becase it suggests an all-knowing objectiveness. But because she was not
interested in her tape being read as oblique, Subrin chose to use a narrator.
In relation to the subjects of this videotape, this voiceover speaks from
a particularly interesting place. If voicovers are disembodied voices --
what state is our narrator in? Is she one who has succeeded in 'disembodying'
herself? If the filmmaker is suggesting that anorexia and depression are
language problems, what are we to make of our narrator's eloquence? For
me, these are the most thought-provoking questions to ponder.
negative footage the use of negative footage suggests two things: 1. it suggests something's wrong, that the picture isn't perfect. 2. the preponderance of white in the image plays up the notion of 'whiting out' or cancelling meaning -- a trick used throughout Swallow.
words The use of text in this appropriated footage suggests this is a language learning film. The neverending supply of text, typing writing and books in Swallow hammers home the notion that anorexia's and depression's symptoms are not only worn on the body, but in the performances of language and silence. The showing of a boy's room and words associated with it -- shows how gender codes are established even as one is learning. It also points to the patriarchal structure inherent in language systems (including filmmaking!)
Cross faded stills are rarely used outside of educational films. They remind me of filmstrips shown in sixth grade on Wollensak projectors complete with beeps which indicated when to change to the next image. As with many of Swallow's references, these images conjure up a sense of nostalgia.
'Free to Be You and Me' Here's another: Marlo Thomas' saccharine version of 'I'm OK, You're OK' for kids.
Are you there God it's me, Margaret And a third:
Thank God none of us paid that much attention to the specifics of Judy
Blume's novel or we would have all been waiting for our sanitary belts.
2-4-6-8 Throughout Swallow, one encounters
numbers --usually preceding lists. Peppered thoughout, we find numbered
symptoms lifted from the 'abnormal behavior' documentary. Subrin cops the
documentary's style and gives a numbered list the subtle non-empirical
symptoms she recalls. Here, numbers serve as rally cry, but also, ironically,
as yet another way to pull voices into line, into harmony. There's no space
water flowing from under the bed To me, it suggests
any number of uncontrollable floodings women experience -- especially menstruation
and the breaking of water.
computer -- it's interesting to ponder the rarity of images of computers in Swallow given the videotape's obsession with text generators. It's partially nostaligic and partially an attempt to borrow from the frustration felt trying to work with a typewriter. But it also can be read as an act of defiance -- focusing on the typewriter over the computer is in keeping with Subrin's preference for Pixelvision over Betacam. It acknowledges that which has been forgotten, marginalized, and brings it to the center.
a mother and a father Is the depressed or anorexic child one who can't find a place within an Oedipal narrative? Can anorexia or depression be read as subversive acts?
calories consumed the only kind of math a girl does well?
beheaded Again and again, women's heads are cut out of the frame in allusion to images in advertising which often do the same.
whites out Subrin means to connote an erasure or a censoring (and also to suggest this is a white girl disease, too, I think) but the use of white out also connects to a lovely passage in Cixous' the Laugh of Medusa: ' . . . a woman is never far from 'mother' . . . there is always within her at least some of that good mother's milk. She writes in white ink.' (1237) Ironically, this image marks the begining of a section in Swallow dedicated almost entirely to the mother.
pistol When Subrin first told me about Swallow
in 1992, all she had was the title and one idea. At some point, she wanted
to include an image of a girl firing a pistol at a television monitor.
I thought of Checkov's rule: if you reveal a gun in the first act, you'd
better use it in the third. Would the gun survive all of the sublimations
necessary from turning ideas into videos? Or would she forget about it?
The gun survived the four years, but turned into a weapon which wants to
fire words at Mom and Dad, not the TV. To me, this sequence is about the
temptation of suicide. It suggests there's power to be found in writing
the note. But what if you can't write the note?
Silent This footage without sound plays up Shirley Temple's rote performance She's a spectacle -- entertaining but unfeeling and silent. Personality inscribed on the shell of a little girl.
acting Many of the performances in Swallow, including this one by Elisabeth's little sister Jennifer, read as theraputic --they're suggestive of analysis, childs' play, role-playing and projection.
'Maybe I shouldn't go to college' This line got the most laughs from women in an audience of college students.
Powerjournalist Both of the television journalists I know are rich, successful, smart and bulimic. If one is tempted to think only models and actresses fall victim to the extreme body parameters imposed on women who work in mass media, here's proof that it happens to journalists at CNN and CourtTV too.
crashing through a plate of glass An image from Blade Runner in which a replicant -- or a machine 'passing' as human --is murdered by Decker.
126.96.36.199.8.9. The list goes on.
Tape sound into microphone: The sound of Elisabeth's voice is further disembodied. My pessimistic reading is that the narrator has done away with the body altogether.
She wore brown corduroys and a blue sweater in the middle of July! That the voice chooses to reiterate this apparently useless information, to shout it, salvages this final scene for me. (Of course, it's not useless and could suggest any number of things: Sarah is cold when she shouldn't be, she doesn't fit in, she needs to hide her body.) What our narrator recognizes as symptoms are, in fact, important. This disembodied voice demands that a listener hear her, to acknowledge that what she has to say has meaning, that she can make language work for her one way or another.