“In some ways I feel like I’m making sculpture,” filmmaker Peggy Ahwesh explained to Dr. Osterweil’s Women Filmmakers class last Wednesday. The Pittsburgh-area native and self-proclaimed vampire film junkie comfortably took over the professorial seat as she answered questions about her process. She emphasized the dangers of succumbing to the control of new technology, pointing out that tools can only really work for an artist once they’ve become obsolete (Ahwesh uses intertitles to this effect in her 1986 film The Dead Man). Though she decries blind technology usage, Ahwesh maintains the importance of the editing process, in which the filmmaker’s intelligence is paramount. Immersing herself in ‘70s punk culture, Ahwesh developed an interest in improvisation, anthropology, and documentary filmmaking. Her work with found footage and her defiance of genre conventions invites a post-modernist dialogue between viewers and the screen. The class learned that Peggy has worked with director George Romero on Dawn of the Dead, she treats her students at Bard College as her peers, and she thinks that people “are sophisticated and should be challenged.” In her last words of advice, Peggy half-jokingly extolled the glories of thrift store shopping; a virtual magnet for props and maybe even some found footage.
Dr. Osterweil’s students wrote response papers about an Ahwesh film of their choice. The following is Hugh Trimble’s response to Ahwesh’s The Dead Man, which is based on the text of Georges Bataille’s Le Mort. [katie.silverstein]
In her film The Dead Man, Peggy Ahwesh creates a problematic space for the viewer to inhabit. Through her utter rejection of familiar, traditional narrative form Ahwesh prohibits her audience from experiencing the work passively, but its shattered and unpredictable composition renders a viewer helpless and lost within the cinematic text. In watching the film I found myself continually consumed by and then exiled from the action on screen, forced to engage with the images from a detached but profoundly self-conscious psychological location. Marie’s consistent nudity and the explicit sexual activity throughout the film lures the objectifying, phallic gaze of the audience to the surface of perception and then violently punishes the looker through Marie’s unrestrained, humiliating behavior. At the close of the film I felt battered and confused, like a dog that has been repeatedly coaxed by the promise of affection and then beaten for advancing.
I understand the importance of exposing and critiquing our own phallocentric methods of perception, and I appreciate Ahwesh’s efforts to move her position within culture’s discourse on sexuality and femininity from defense to offense, but I sensed no solution within The Dead Man. Is there truly no constructive, accepting voice for me as a heterosexual male? Is my own guilt really the extent to which I can follow my path of discovering and participating in the system of sexuality that defines the human animal? And yet Ahwesh does not claim to be in a position to judge or assign labels to me or any of her viewers. My feelings of humiliation and scorn, in a way, stem from my own reflection, not from any statement made by the film itself. Perhaps Ahwesh seeks to embody the anti-authority by not directly distributing or delineating meaning, but creating an empty space, or a mould, in to which sense spills and acquires individual form for the viewer. The film is undeniably an uncomfortable experience within a conservative, patriarchal context, a rupture that seeks to become a threshold for otherness. I feel that Ahwesh is doing her best to chisel a hole in the wall of phallic ideology that guides our thought processes.
Ahwesh uses intertitles in The Dead Man, a cinematic device employed in classic Hollywood to compensate for the lack of dialogue in early cinema. The film, however, includes diagetic sound and is also narrated so the titles are generally redundant, merely repeating the words and actions of the characters on screen. The arbitrary role of the text, therefore, serves to illuminate mainstream cinema’s crippling allegiance to standard and oppressive visual and narrative techniques as well as to gesture towards the filmmaker’s critical opinion of the institution of language itself. As with my experiences with other material containing postmodern insight, I am left in a position of paralyzed stimulation in the wake of Ahwesh’s film. I sense significance and genuine relevance, but I am encouraged to forget everything I am told the moment it is voiced. Like Jacques Derrida, Ahwesh is “writing with both hands,” continually inscribing belief and then undermining her own conviction (and her audience’s ability to process and apply the thematic content). This postmodern condition of thought is appropriate and necessary in light of this era’s materialistic, confined philosophy of identity, but I believe reactionary art should be able to stimulate some form of action, even if it be deliberate inaction.