Laura Mulvey on Riddles of the Sphinx

Laura Mulvey remembers shooting her groundbreaking avant-garde classic Riddles of the Sphinx – now released on Blu-ray/DVD.

Chris Fennell
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Shooting Riddles of the Sphinx (1977): director of photography Diane Tammes with Peter Wollen

Shooting Riddles of the Sphinx (1977): director of photography Diane Tammes with Peter Wollen

Laura Mulvey is one of the pre-eminent film theorists of our time. Her groundbreaking 1975 essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ remains a landmark text in film studies, combining film theory with a political use of psychoanalysis and feminism to assert that narrative film traditionally revolves around male spectatorship of the objectified female body. Two years later, Mulvey directed her second avant-garde film with fellow academic and theorist Peter Wollen, Riddles of the Sphinx, which draws on both of their critical writings and investigations.

The film is constructed in 13 Brechtian chapters examining the role of the mother around the myth of Oedipus’s encounter with the Sphinx. These range from silver-grained experimental shots to Mulvey’s own to-camera readings and a series of slow 360 degree panning shots, which aim to break up the patriarchy of narrative and develop a new relationship between the viewer and female subject.

Newly restored in high definition and rereleased as a BFI Dual Format (DVD/Blu-ray) edition, Mulvey’s visually astonishing and intellectually rich film is one of the key avant-garde works of the British experimental film scene of the 1960s and 70s. It is presented here with a wealth of new material, including a feature-length commentary and video interview with Laura Mulvey; Mulvey and Wollen’s first film, Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons (1974); and an extensive booklet of original essays.

Shooting Riddles of the Sphinx (1977): Laura Mulvey

Shooting Riddles of the Sphinx (1977): Laura Mulvey

How did the film come about?

There are two answers to that. First of all, Peter and I had made Penthesilea, our first film, in the US while Peter was working at Northwestern University. Peter was always interested in avant-garde film in a way I probably hadn’t been. The professor who ran the department at Northwestern laid down a challenge, as it were, to Peter, and said: “If you’re so interested in the avant garde, there is all this equipment here that you can use. Why don’t you and Laura make an avant-garde film?” So we did. It was very much what we thought of as our scorched-earth-return-to-zero type film.

Second of all, when we came back to the UK, we found that the dynamics of the independent and experimental film world had expanded enormously. When we left, in the late 60s, there was already a new energy emerging with the London Filmmakers’ Co-op, but by the time we got back in the mid-70s, Peter Sainsbury, who was the head of the BFI Production Board and editor, with Simon Field, of AfterImage, a magazine which pioneered interest in experimental film, encouraged us to apply for a grant. I think it was for £20,000 in all.

Obviously you made the film two years after ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ was published. Did you see the film as an essential extension of your essay?

Both Peter and I were very excited by the chance to transfer the theoretical ideas that we’d been working on in essays into a visual form. We were inspired by the possibilities of what that meant and where we were positioning ourselves within the debates of the time.

From Peter’s point of view, the film came in the aftermath of his two famous essays [‘Godard and Counter-Cinema: Vent d’est’ and ‘The Two Avant-gardes’]. For both of us the challenge was how to both work within the aesthetic of a counter cinema but also try to begin to kind of edge things out of, as it were, a pure negativity into suggesting other kinds of aesthetic strategies and trajectories.

Riddles of the Sphinx (1977)

Riddles of the Sphinx (1977)

You and Peter obviously had different scholarly and aesthetic interests. Was it a challenge at all trying to balance your artistic sensibilities?

Not really. I don’t know why it wasn’t. We were both very interested in the politics of psychoanalysis and feminism and we were both very interested in the question of language and how experimental language could be transferred to film. The theoretical questions we were interested in were similar, albeit a kind of tangle in themselves, a mixture between psychoanalytic theory and aesthetic theory, dislocations between sound and image characteristic of an avant-garde strategy.

How did your involvement with the women’s movement in the 1970s influence the film?

In the 70s, the women’s liberation movement collectively insisted that images were a political issue and that images were the site of struggle. And as I had spent the 60s just more or less doing very little but going to movies and loving the cinema, it seemed logical to take a step back and think about the way in which my new consciousness of the politics of images might relate to the cinema that I loved so much, primarily Hollywood. That was how ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ emerged.

Shooting Riddles of the Sphinx (1977): Peter Wollen (in mirror)

Shooting Riddles of the Sphinx (1977): Peter Wollen (in mirror)

Second of all, the question of motherhood was also very central. Those of us in the women’s movement who were interested in psychoanalysis and Freud felt that his theories gave a vocabulary to the kinds of things that we were interested in. So if you felt that questions of the oppression of women were to do with sexuality, motherhood, the home, the child’s transition out of the world of the mother into the world of what Lacan would call the symbolic order, if you felt that those aspects of social life were important to explore as a site of women’s oppression, then psychoanalysis was really the only way in. Of course there were sociological ways in, but psychoanalysis in some way opened up a new, almost magic terrain. I was then exposed to a political use of psychoanalysis and this became one of the things that I wanted to do, and Peter wanted to do, in our films.

We were always interested in stories and storytelling. But we were also interested in stories as a way of probing or experimenting with other ways of telling stories. There was perhaps a rather divided sense between feminists who felt female artists could come up with completely new imagery that would reflect women’s sensibility and a feminist aesthetic just by wanting to.

And then there were those of us who felt that this was over-utopian and that it was only by working with words, images, stories, legends, aesthetics – all the things that kind of circulate in society – and shifting them into different kinds of constellations, reconfiguring them, that one could shape a women’s movement, so to speak.

Riddles of the Sphinx (1977)

Riddles of the Sphinx (1977)

The contents at the start and the intertitles throughout bring a sense of order and clarity to all those aspects of the cinema you were working with. Was that the purpose behind them?

The chapters and the titles were definitely influenced by Godard. But Peter was also, in his own right, interested in the actual contribution of the written word as an image, the way that words spoken and words written have a different status. We thought that we could put the status of the filmmaker/artist into one of more collaboration with the spectator rather than one that is just coming up with very mysterious and difficult images. We wanted there to be something of a system that people could understand.

The domestic sequences are constructed around 360 degree pans, first from left to right and then, at the very end, from right to left. What was the intention behind this?

From earlier on, when we were working on Penthesilea, one of our points of negative aesthetics if you like, was to undermine point of view and all the ways in which editing contributes to creating a time and space that comes out of the conventions of continuity editing. As a simple negation of that, in Penthesilea, we shot in 10-minute sequences. Each 10-minute sequence was one can of 16mm film. Therefore it wasn’t up to us to say when the beginning and end was – it just ended.

We wanted to do something similar in Riddles. The 360-degree pan was an extended shot which again came to an end out of the logic of its own movement. We liked the way that the machine had an autonomy and the mechanics of the cinema took over and could determine the structure of the film. But we were also interested, as we were making the film, in the way in which different kinds of spaces changed and modulated the movement of the camera.

Shooting Riddles of the Sphinx (1977)

Shooting Riddles of the Sphinx (1977)

There is a scene in which we can actually see 16mm film strips hanging in a room, which is particularly striking now in this new age of digital. What do you think of the move towards digital now at the expense of celluloid?

I think one can regret celluloid as much as one likes but there’s just nothing much one can do about it. I think digital technology is very liberating in many ways. It isn’t the same as celluloid by any means but perhaps that’s a different discussion. In Riddles, we were very consciously working with 16mm film because we were caught up in that 16mm movement that flourished during the 70s.

How did Mike Ratledge’s music emerge and how do you think it worked in the film?

Collaboration was always important for Peter and I, in the sense that we were a collaboration, so even though we discussed everything extremely systematically together, particularly on Riddles, we also liked collaborating in a sense of working with someone whose work we were interested in and admired.

I met Mike [at university] in Oxford. He was a movie fan, like me. When we asked Mike to do the music we didn’t really know what we wanted him to do. Peter and I aren’t particularly music literate so we wanted to hand over the responsibility to someone who we trusted to come up with something appropriate. Mike understood how the music should function with the iteration of the camera movement and the pans.

Riddles of the Sphinx (1977)

Riddles of the Sphinx (1977)

There’s a point in the film when Louise goes out to work, into what we might call the real world, the music disappears and the film moves more into a kind of a register of the everyday. But it is very important to have the music mixed with the everyday in the three early sequences of pure motherhood because, the music and the rather strange voiceovers represent, in some way, a kind of gesture towards an unconscious. We wouldn’t necessarily say that this is the unconscious but it is a gesture towards the mystery or difficulty of the status of being a mother.

Were the sonic aspects of the film, then, as important as the visual?

Yes, definitely. As I’ve said, we were interested in Godard and his emphasis on the mixture between sound and image. Peter and I weren’t purists. We were influenced more by Hollis Frampton than by Stan Brakhage, for example. However, we were very interested and influenced by the purism of the avant garde, its interesting specificity of cinema, and its experiments with celluloid as a medium with its modernist, kind of Greenbergian implications. We were interested in the way experimental cinema could move beyond the purism of specificity and into work between word and image, sound and image, music and image etc.

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  • Riddles of the Sphinx

    Riddles of the Sphinx

    One of the most important avant-garde films to have emerged from Britain during the 1970s. Released 23 September.

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