Riddles of the Sphinx (UK, 1977)

Still making sense

Still making sense

Whilst studying Film/Literature, at Warwick University in the early 1980s, we had an opportunity to see, in 16mm, Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen’s Riddles of the Sphinx and I vividly remember one shot from the film and that I liked it. Now the BFI have re-released the film, along with Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons made by the wife-husband pair three years earlier, in a dual format edition. So here’s a great opportunity to revisit the fertile time of the ’70s when Marxist politics were to fore. Not that Marx has been shown to be wrong, or irrelevant, of course just that he has seemed to have gone out of ‘fashion’ in academia (I observe that as an outsider so may be wrong). I notice that economics students in Manchester are campaigning to get Marx back on their curriculum; it’s remarkable that he’s not especially in the light of the free-market driven financial collapse.

I got Riddles on rental but, as I liked the film again and the package was so generous, including a booklet, that I’ve bought the er ‘limited edition’ (I believe that refers to the Blu-ray disc). What’s particularly interesting is how the film now as much an historical document showing, as it does, slices (or rather ’round bits’) of life from the ’70s. The ’round bits’ refers to the bulk of the film that has six (I think) scenes where a rostrum camera pans slowly as the action happens in front of it. What’s seen appears to be controlled as much by the technology as the directors; the framing isn’t aesthetically pleasing and so draws attention to the material nature of what we’re seeing. As does a sequence where we see the very grainy footage of an old film of Egyptian monuments (the only passage of the film that tested by patience). The film’s not just ‘historical’ in what it shows but also in how it shows it utilising modernist techniques to ‘estrange’ the spectator.

The narrative follows the life of a mother, whose husband (probably not ‘just’ a partner in the ’70s) has left her with their young daughter. Each ‘slice’ focuses on a different event such as starting work, socialising in the work canteen and shopping. The latter slice, in an early version of the late capitalist hell, shopping malls, is particularly interesting to look at. These are mundane events, the antithesis of Hollywood, but integral to our lives and, particularly, the lives of women.

Mulvey and Wollen are better known as film theorists than film-makers and theirs was a fascinating project to turn theory, particularly the ‘male gaze’ and ‘counter cinema’ respectively, into film. The ’70s were a fertile time for such experimentation and it was good to see the BFI, which funded this film, recently backing the intellectually adventurous Stuart Hall Project. With feminism making a long-needed comeback, Hollywood giving up on thought-provoking cinema, the time is right for new ways of creating meaning in film.

The shot I remembered over 30-years later, by the way, was when the stately pan suddenly began moving on top of a vehicle.

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