Watch an excerpt of Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen's innovative 1977 film Riddles Of The Sphinx, sountracked by Soft Machine's Mike Ratledge. The recently released DVD of the film is reviewed by Nick Cain in The Wire 357.Made in 1977 by directors and film theorists Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, Riddles Of The Sphinx fell into obscurity shortly after its release, but has recently been made available on DVD for the first time by the British Film Institute.
Riddles Of The Sphinx was an expression of the then married couple's political commitment and interest in dissecting the language of film making. Mulvey's 1975 manifesto "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" is widely considered one of the most important early contributions to feminist film theory.
The film is available from the BFI in dual format DVD/Blu-Ray, and comes with a booklet of essays, including a contribution by The Wire's Rob Young, looking at the film's multitrack synthesizer score composed by Soft Machine's Mike Ratledge. - thewire.co.uk/
A hand flicks through a book full of different representations of the Sphinx. Through direct address to the audience, intercut with images and text, the filmmaker, Laura Mulvey, examines the myth's cultural and historical significance. She explains how the Sphinx will act as the film's narrator because it's voice is different from the authoritative voice associated with patriarchy, both in film and on the page. It is a "questioning voice, a voice asking a riddle." This explanation is followed by abstracted images of the Sphinx at Gaza taken from tourist film and photographs. This section and much of the middle section is overlaid with electronic compositions by Mike Ratledge.
Divided into 13 segments, the second section of the film switches from the filmmaker's direct address to a third person narration of the story of Louise, a young mother struggling to juggle work and childcare after separation from her husband. Each segment is a 360 degree pan of the camera around a fixed location, describing different aspects of Louise's journey from housewife and mother to a woman with a sense of her own identity and enpowerment. One pan depicts her standing at the window with her child in her arms as her husband leaves. She has her back to the camera and we do not yet see her face, for her identity is still associated intrinsically with her domestic environment and her passive role.
As Louise goes out to work, other worlds and other voices begin to interject into this interior world. A slow pan around women at switchboards shows that their drudgery at home has been replaced by drudgery at work. The women discuss approaching the unions about the difficulty of finding childcare while at work. Louise's growing questions about her own situation as a single working mother and the wider patriarchy which oppresses her accompany the camera's pan around a melancholy, windswept park as she plays with her child. Her questions are inconclusive, bringing her "out into society and back into her own memory," but she is now more able to articulate them. The slow and constant rotation of the camera is accompanied by a fragmented voice-over which sometimes articulates Louise's thoughts, but also introduces other voices, of the women that she works with or her new friend Maxine.
As Louise's tale ends a sequence depicts female acrobats who, like the Sphinx, are transformed by an experimental use of film processing. While the sphinx was rendered grainy and indeciperable, the acrobats are solarised and tinted in an exuberant array of colours, signalling their liberation and energy. The up-beat images of the acrobats are followed by one of Mulvey, who again takes up her position in direct address to the viewer, but here she is listening to her earlier explanation of the Sphinx and her film on a tape recorder and reflecting on it, sometimes making notes. The final image of the film is a close-up of a pocket puzzle as a ball of mercury finds its way to the centre of the maze. The invisible player shakes the puzzle and the image becomes a blur of silver. - www.youtube.com/watch?v=-9u5md4QjF0
Laura Mulvey on Riddles of the Sphinx
Chris Fennell, 1 October 2013
Laura Mulvey remembers shooting her groundbreaking avant-garde classic Riddles of the Sphinx – now released on Blu-ray/DVD.
|Shooting Riddles of the Sphinx (1977): director of photography Diane Tammes with Peter Wollen|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Ratfield’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.
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. - www.bfi.org.uk/
Laura Mulvey: Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (pdf)
Created by former-Soft Machine member, Mike Ratledge, 'Riddles of the Sphinx' is considered by many to be a ground-breaking electronic score. Composed using ARP, Moog and VCS-AKS courtesy of former Denys Irving-modified synthesizers, Ratledge's soundtrack provides the perfect minimalist backdrop to the film's avant garde storyline. Tense and timeless, there's a space-age quality to the Riddles of the Sphinx sequence with its myriad of synth rhythms, synthetic melodies and 8-bit progressions. - bleep.com/
Classic synth soundtrack composed by former member of Soft Machine, new on Mordant** "Exhumed '77 OST frond 'Riddles Of The Sphinx'…magick Mike Ratledge unfurls coils of ARP, Moog & VCS-AKS via Denys 'Lucifer' Irving's hacked Z-80 sequencer…these post-Soft Machine plumes spiral in stasis to the frame pans and lockdown Maddox's & Mulvey's dialogue like SE17 dunes…the concentric riddle of the missing original master tapes…film reel audio prised from the BFI vaults & transferred straight to zeros & ones by hieroglyphic happenstance…this acrobatic dredge has revealed more than enough mercury to further protract the riddles within…"You've got my number if you need anything"…IBM. “The film's ground-breaking electronic score, by The Soft Machine's Mike Ratledge, was composed on synthesisers which were developed in collaboration with Denys Irving (the man behind the mysterious and controversial 1970s band Lucifer).”" - boomkat
Here’s a fascinating discovery from Mordant Music, a synthesizer score from 1977 to Laura Mulvey’s experimental film ‘Riddles of the Sphinx’, performed by Soft Machine’s Mike Ratledge on synthesizers developed in collaboration with Dennis Irving. On the record you’ll hear some lovely library synth sounds arranged in patient, repetitive patterns, often with field recordings or spoken word excerpts from the film’s script overlaid.It’s a darkly meditative listen, with soothingly looped melodies paired beautifully against Mary Maddox’s cold voice morosely delivering the lines. The synths aren’t too densely layered or busy but are always actively melodic and driving the music forward with a gorgeous wibbly analogue grace. Brian just grabbed one for himself, exclaiming, “Does absolutely everything for me, does this.” - Norman Records