Looking at Women
In this opening shot from Still Life (1974) the artist's model walks into the art class to begin her night shift. Her silk dressing gown undulates against her body. The gown is partly open and underneath she is naked; a provocative moment, the gown both protective yet promising exposure. It feels liminal, these seconds before the event of the male gaze, before she disrobes her body for observation. The shot is accompanied by discordant electric music, suggesting spatial and auditory volatility. This is a site of instability.
Still Life was produced by Dasha (Dagmar) Ross and myself in the 1974 Women's Film Workshop in Sydney.1 This was before any film schools or media courses existed (except at Swinburne Institute of Technology, Victoria) and there were scarcely any women in the film and television industry. Ten short films were produced in the workshop. All were screened at Sydney's Anzac Auditorium in 1974 and most were distributed to schools and universities via the Sydney Filmmakers Co-op. A number of the workshop participants subsequently gained admission to the 1975 intake at the new national film school – AFTRS (including Dasha); others, including myself, co-ordinated the International Women's Film Festival which toured Australian capital cities in 1975 – International Women's Year. During the 1970s Still Life triggered debates about "the male gaze" and representation of women's bodies, which this essay discusses.
As Dasha and I had both worked as artist's models in the late 1960s and 1970s in various contexts – at art schools and for several well-known artists – we wanted to explore our complex feelings, perhaps in a film. Our art class jobs were casual, fitted around uni studies and other part-time work. I had also done a few seedy jobs, such as one in a motel for a man who called himself an artist. It felt so strange, sitting nude on a single bed in a motel room, with him sitting opposite me fully clothed and drawing me. I was scared and vulnerable. Was I safe? The opportunity of the women's film workshop seemed an ideal context to dive into our concerns and represent them in a film. There were two catalysts informing our thinking. One was women's liberation and the exploding circulation of feminist texts examining women's oppression and repression; the other was John Berger's 1972 BBC TV series and book Ways of Seeing.2 John Berger died on 2 January, as I was writing this piece, and in the ensuing outpouring of acknowledgments, the web was awash with tributes. This one particularly resonated for me:
Sally Potter recalls, back during the making of Orlando (1992), being with Tilda Swinton when "she pulled out her copy of Ways of Seeing in order to read out one particular sentence to me . . . ‘Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.' I was in the process of looking at her, I was already the eyes of the camera in our collaboration. She was looking at herself being looked at by me. We became conspirators in the conceptual field so neatly laid out by John. Except that I was a woman."3
One of the first published articles on Still Life, by Kate Legge, critiqued the film for objectifying women. Legge writes: "The woman is filmed according to the conventions established by an art tradition which places nudity on display, and therefore perpetuates the very ideology it tries to subvert."4 There is some truth in this, I think. Nearly half a century later, to revisit Still Life is to face our naiveté regarding objectification and how best to represent women's bodies and deconstruct ways of seeing them. Consider Margot Nash and Robin Laurie's short film We Aim to Please (1976). Here we see a deconstructionist approach that challenges viewers in a visually symbolic way; the image for rape, for instance, is a beer bottle smashing into a watermelon. It's visceral, confronting and full of affect and there's no doubling sexploitation of women's bodies.
So, forty-three years later, I want to take this opportunity in 2017 to call on Sally Potter's phrase, "Except that I was a woman," and consider it in relation to Still Life. Dasha and I, like Sally Potter, "became conspirators in the conceptual field" along with the actor who performed the artist model; she was in on the gaze with us. Our collaborative examination of the gaze was active, not passive; it had several layers. In this we were attempting to represent the distinction between nakedness and nudity explored in Ways of Seeing: "To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself."5
So, in the first instance we represent the model as a nude – thrown into a male art class of voyeurs. As if to cope with this oppressive reality the model escapes, in her mind's eye, elsewhere. Here she imagines or remembers being with a woman friend, relaxed and naked, by an open window, enjoying each other's presence. They laugh. The wind blows the lace curtain; in this moment they are free. It is a moment where we might sense jouissance: a feeling described as "a fusion of the erotic, the mystical, and the political."6 In this instance the eyes of the camera are female: the naked women are not subject to an "othering" gaze; instead, it is a collaborative gaze, shared between the women in front of and behind the camera.
But then again, there is the viewer and what he or she does with the naked female body in their own mind. On our film set one of the male artists happened to be a novelist. The very fact of this art class film location and the presence of a nude model triggered his sexual fantasies, which he subsequently published as a short story, "This Evening I Take Part in a Film":
This evening I take part in a film. It is a women's film. I cannot think why around the concept of a women's film hovers hopefully the idea of a pornographic film . . . The idea of her naked and surrounded by men watching her and cameras and sound and light crews excites me.7
He continues "instant writing" his desire – evoking his imaginary8 of the model's sexual fantasies about him. Later in the story he adds, "Sometimes, I feel, the directors of this film are not concentrating on the most interesting material."9 Yet perhaps he underestimates these directors. What of our desire? The most "interesting material" for this director was filmed on the set where he (and men) were absent – when the two women were "naked" and simply enjoying each other (along with the filmmakers). Again, Berger offers insights into different emotions evoked around representing the naked body: "In this revelation lies the warm and friendly – as opposed to cold and impersonal – anonymity of nakedness."10
So, does our artist's short story simply serve as evidence that Still Life perpetuates objectification by providing him with a nude woman for his sexual fantasies? Or does the film realise something else as well? If we consider Sally Potter's words, "except that I was a woman," and link it to her notion of scenes filmed within a "conceptual field" where the filmmakers and model are conspirators together investigating the male gaze, then perhaps the film also offers viewers the choice of a more layered perspective around nudity, nakedness and women's experience of being observed. In this I suggest the scenes of the two women together in Still Life offer fleeting moments of women's embodied pleasure in each other. Jouissance.