The Feminine in Experimental Film


Julia Kristeva’s concept of the ‘semiotic’ is a register which resists symbolic structures and is like poetry or art and music and can interrupt the symbolic to enable what is beyond literal meaning. It ‘originates in the drives, rhythm and sound and is beyond words and beyond literal meaning’ but is in relationship with the ‘symbolic’ through language”. [1]  Experimental film has a poetic or ‘semiotic’ is a register which is founded on a physical engagement with material and which often incorporates aspects of rhythm and sound.  I use the analogy of ‘the feminine’ in experimental film in particular,  for this register which is the production of an irreducible ‘extra’ that is not locatable to any one source but is invested in the film as a text and in its enunciation.


The ‘feminine’ then is a structure which resists codes of stable language and symbolic and totalising representations. The feminine as a modality in experimental film can be part of the ‘subjective’ when it is understood as not just a stable construction of a fixed autobiographical subject but mediated through material engagement and often the need to speak in, within and through film as a material.  The idea of medium as having particular qualities which can be drawn out, is an established concept of the modernist avant-garde and structural film developed as a language which placed its emphasis on film as medium. 


At the LFMC, experimental film practices engaged with analogue aesthetics based on the ontology of film as a medium and the experimentation with visual forms and I am calling this intersection of material engagement and subjective inscription, the ‘feminine’ in experimental film.  The ‘feminine’ is not exclusively produced by women (since these inscriptive practices can also be performed by men’s films) but I think it is founded on women’s greater use of film for the purposes of self-realisation. 


This account of the ‘feminine’ in experimental film is related not just to the  legacy of modernism and the ontology of the medium but to the drives and forms which also incorporate forms of narrative which interrupt what Kristeva calls the symbolic which is everything that can be captured by the representation and the established codes and grammars of film language, even experimental film languages which can also become established and did so.  


The ‘feminine’ is also a structure which emerges through the process of the engagement with material in a deep and close work with representation as a form of ‘pressure’ on the image and which produces representations which convey intensity which in turn communicate with the viewer.   This ‘pressure’ can be produced in various ways.  Often experimental film owes its animatory qualities and dynamism to   displays of virtuoso control of the medium, to manual techniques which were often achieved on the optical printer, to individual styles of editing and sound and the importance of the camera –  often in movement –  the fixed camera having been associated with structural and independent formalist film.   The ‘feminine’ register in experimental film is produced from the relationship of the material engagement within the ethos of the LFMC combined with an emphasis on subjective and a psychic investment in this process.    The engagement with materiality, which is not restricted or reducible to, but can be understood through,  the physical handling of the medium and the investment of the psyche, both perform as enunciators of authorship and inscription perhaps sometimes through unruly performativity  [2] For example, in the production of an aesthetic through the manipulations of the image, in the excess of colours or other visual phenomena, the use of camera, the register of the voice as signifier of the subject and other aesthetics which are individual to each film.  These signifiers also began to create representations of an ‘intense subject’ signaled through the tropes of the subjective but still interruptive of linear narrative through techniques of fragmentation, repetition, editing, speed, intercutting, juxtaposition, unstable spatialisation etc., which can be deployed to perform a rhetoric of authorship.[3]  These inscriptive rhetorics create forms which intersect materiality in relationships of sound to image, abstract forms of semi-veiled representation which resist total symbolisation but arise from the urgent need for women to represent themselves as subjects not just in symbolic literal representations but in mechanisms of enunciation through the film itself as a text and a form of material writing into which a ‘semiotic’ register is inscribed. The ‘feminine’ therefore as I conceive of it is a structure of intersecting signifiers that can combine all or any moment; production methods, material engagement, often display of virtuoso skill, authorial enunciation as a form of self-inscription which is necessary for the artist and communicates and leaves an impression on the viewer.


©Nina Danino  2019

[1]  See: Julia Kristeva (1984), Revolution in Poetic Language, New York: Columbia University Press.

[2] See Stabat Mater (1990),  Neon Queen (1982),  Night Dances (1994), Light Readings (1984). “Now I am yours” (1992), Eros Erosion (1990) and others.

[3] See Nina Danino (2002), ‘The Intense Subject’  in Nina Danino, Michael Maziere (eds ), .The Undercut Reader: Critical Writings on Artists’ Film and Video, London/New York: Columbia University Press, p. 11.