When I began writing this examination of Swallow, I was having trouble keeping my thoughts on leash. Words were wandering far from the primary text -- too far to call home again. My tools -- namely M.M. Bahktin's notions of heteroglossia and Theresa de Lauretis' take on the history of women's cinema -- started to suggest this three-channelled approach. It allows me to posit specific ideas (in the second channel) and show from exactly where in the text the ideas came (thus the first channel's transcription). It also makes room for an overall gloss or summation here in the third. 'Framing' the channels means to make them slippery and indpendent but still part of a cohesive piece. Finally, I wanted to find to way to write about Swallow which could suggest the complexity of the many layers of meaning at work in the videotape.
In reading Bahktin's ideas on heteroglossia -- the assertion
that words' meaning is negotiable, multifarious and completely contingent
on context -- and by perusing the examples he extracts from novels, I'm
often struck by what reads as an unconscious desire for a real fusion of
sound and image. In Discourse in the Novel, Bahktin describes words
as "a play of colors and light" and soon thereafter as objects which "harmonize"
and "strik(e) a dissonance with others" ( 277). Later, Bahktin writes of
the process of re-accentuation as language which "sound(s) in a different
way, or is bathed in a different light" (420). Elsewhere Bahktin tells
us novels present an 'image of language' where 'speech from speaking lips
(is) conjoined with the image of a speaking person' (336). Film and
video allow for exactly this type of play which Bahktin described only
metaphorically. Language takes on a robustness in the mediums of film and
video which cannot be found in written discourse and which still finds
only limited play on the web.
Swallow takes advantage of its medium -- its ability to represent language aurally and visually -- to prove exactly Bahktin's point: that language is slippery and wet and the power of meaning is completely contingent on who's speaking. Language takes shape explicitly as text on the screen, voiceovers, little girls' diaries, spoken words, newspapers, medical pamphlets, language learning films, titles, credits.
Subrin uses a lot of appropriated footage and music in Swallow -- a practice akin to parody and the use of songs and letters in novelistic discourse. Much of what she is trying to do is exactly what Bahktin named as the struggle between authoritative discourse -- language which Bahktin called specifically the 'word of the fathers' -- and internally persuasive discourse or the 're-telling a text in one's own words' (424). By using appropriated sounds and images, and butting them up against her own sounds and images, Subrin clears a space for the struggle.
By writing in this fashion, I hope to make room for a
similar struggle as I re-tell Subrin's text. I'm also wrestling with authoritative
discourse and, despite Bahktin's claims that it can't be done, trying to
'play with it's borders' (424).
My own wrestling with authoritative discourse has taken
the form of defending Reading Subrin's Swallowas a hypertext essay
despite its lack of hyperlinks. Even webwork has its margins.
One aspect of discourse -- novelistic or filmic -- which
I find underexamined is the discourse of silence. Swallow evokes
silence but only rarely uses it as a way of communicating. Silence in film
and video are akin to margins or white spaces in written discourse -- begging
to be written in (as the Brontes did).
What I like about Theresa de Lauretis is her effortless
peregrinations between written and filmic texts. She draws from the wealth
of literary theory to examine -- and justify (a propos of Bahktin) -- filmworks
of all genres as serious cultural productions.
What I don't like is de Lauretis' nod to filmmaker Yvonne Rainer for her summing up of women's cinema as a perfect dialectic. In Strategies of Coherence, de Lauretis tells us the history of women's cinema is threefold. First, women made 'traditional' films which were explicitly about women. Next, women made non-narrative avant-garde films in an attempt to disrupt the patriarchal 'narrative hierarchy (119). Finally, women returned to narrative form to make films about women. Even though de Lauretis does not impose a chronology on the dialectic -- and admits its fluidity -- it closes down and oversimplifies a huge body of work by women.
de Lauretis' and Rainer's imposition of the dialectic glosses over a rocky fight over narrativity. Narrative is Oedipal, narrative creates desire and holds film viewers in a mighty grasp. Narrative is traditionally about looking -- often at women's bodies. de Lauretis suggests the right way to fight the power is not to be anti-Oedipal and anti-narrative, but to be narrative and Oedipal 'with a vengeance' (108) because narrative's primary function is to serve as a mechanism of coherence.
Works like Swallow can be enjoyed specifically
because they do not fit comfortably within Rainer's dialectic. Swallow
cannot be defined as narrative or non-narrative. It has characters
and voice-overs. It constructs performative situations but it willfully
appropriates and messes with sound and images.
In the narrative scenes in which Elisabeth 'plays' herself at different ages, actors heads are cut off and scenes are not edited, denying the 'suture' provided by most narrative films.
Swallow is indebted to its voiceovers for providing coherence, but they are not perfectly clear. One is never sure who is speaking, nor from where she is speaking. Voiceovers change in tense from first person to second and third suggesting this is an ambigious autobiography.
How does hypertext provide coherence? How does a hypertext piece provide
'suture'? Should it?
de Lauretis and others who've thought through women's cinema acknowledge the complicated role which female spectators adopt vis a vis narrative and the desire it inscribes on viewers. Narrative is largely about looking, is centered around the male gaze which organizes the spectacle according to its view. Female spectators can look too by 'putting on' the male gaze, which makes them ambiguous viewers. (The perfect receivers of heteroglossia!) But it seems sexual preference would complicate this 'putting on' even further. Where does someone with any sort of queer tendencies fit into the Oedipal narrative?
It seems to me that Swallow tries to address this question even if it doesnt address issues of sexual preference specifically. In choosing to focus on the mother instead of the father, Subrin softly subverts the dominant patriarchal order. There is also a subtle patina of homoeroticism in Swallow which is indecipherable from motherly and sisterly love. Girls play, hold hands, dance and kiss. The only men to be heard and seen are found in appropriated images and sounds.
Similarly, the depressed child disrupts the Oedipal
narrative by sugggesting she finds no satisfaction in playing it out.
Finally, if the Oedipal drama hinges on the recognition of a 'lack', then the anorexic girl creates a parody (or pastiche) of her role just as the narrator in Swallow obsesses over 'the space growing between her legs'.
Most of what I find exciting about Swallow is its
newness. It's assersion and obsession with an experience which can only
be entirely understood by women born after 1960. Filmmakers like Yvonne
Rainer and Helke Sander have reigned as the queens of marginalia and newness
for twenty-five years!
Why this desire to stay in the margins?
Just as there's power to be found through anorexia and
depression, there's power in playing the margins. But playing there becomes
problematic when margins spawn new margins. The avant-garde digs for its
radical roots long after they've died. The novel tries to stay novel. I
strive to bring a videotape to the margins, but no closer to center. (Or
is the web the epicenter?) As Bahktin suggests, authoritative discourse
-- once dethroned (which is inevitable) -- immediately becomes a 'dead
thing, a relic' (424). We stay in the margins because they live longer.
Where are the margins of the Web? How long will they stay there?
de Lauretis' readings of specific films by women --Redupers by Helke Sander and Journeys From Berlin by Yvonne Rainer, for example -- highlight their 'marginalization' vis a vis Hollywood films. But it's important to know that there are margins for the margins and in many ways Journeys from Berlin is part of a canon from which other works by women are excluded -- especially videotapes.
The final impulse which convinced me to write in
this three-channeled form was a desire to mimic the style in which 'paper
edits' of films and videos are constructed. Before one goes into the editing
suite, one must forsee how an image track and two audio tracks will fit
together, so one puts them down on paper and slides them in relation to
one another until they seem to fit.
It's a difficult process because one has to reify sounds and images which are intended to unfold over time. It is difficult to convey how transitions are made and how the three channels work together. It's tempting to prioritize the image track and consider the two audio tracks its offspring.
I've found similar problems in organizing this examination.
The second and third channels spring from the transcription of Subrin's
tape. The second channel is slippery, but the third is wandering, prodigal.
It is the center of the piece even if it is found on the edge.
Swallow works because it has to be a videotape.
Consistently, it expresses a frustration with written discourse -- although,
for me, the voiceovers are very writerly (an opinion I formed, ironically,
in transcribing them).
Swallow could not have been a film because it is
dependent on the variformity of video mediums. It needs to show clean pristine
betacam footage and subvert it with pixelVision. It needed to easily appropriate
old films from Hollywood and from home.
Swallow could not have been a website because this medium does not yet allow for a real cohesive interplay betweeimage and sound. The web also features a flashy iconization of text which runs counter to Subrin's project which needs to look at words critically.
Swallow could not have been a novel -- Subrin could not have written as eloquently about the delicate specifics and subtleties of how language, depression and anorexia intertwine. The simple images of girl's diary page or pulling Fig Newtons from the bottom of a dresser drawer have no written collorary. Seeing text on the screen is different from seeing text on a page. How do you communicate in written discourse the hyponotic sound of a smattering of applause? The cold isolation of water dripping?
Citations are from:
M.M. Bahktin, 'Discourse in the Novel,' The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist. Austin: Univeristy of Texas Press, 1981
Helene Cixous, 'The Laugh of Medusa,' The Rhetorical Tradition, ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford Books, 1990.
Theresa de Lauretis, 'Strategies of Coherence,' Technologies of Gender. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1987.
Elisabeth Subrin, Swallow, Chicago, 1995