Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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Amateur Filmmaking Amidst the Institutions, the Case of Claudia Lea Phelps
Mark Garrett Cooper

Last modified: 2010-03-03


What vantage can amateur filmmaking provide on the institutionally produced and regulated films that typically organize our histories? I answer through the work Claudia Lea Phelps (1894-1984), aka "Bill,” a sportswoman, gardener, breeder of West Highland terriers, and filmmaker from a prominent Aiken, South Carolina family. Among other subjects,the Phelps home movies depict a series international voyages in the 1920s. Some are edited like newsreels, with titles inserted. According to Mary Field (in 1934): "The value of the news-reel is the same as that of the best feature films--it enables us to "experience" what otherwise would be quite beyond our powers to conceive." Germaine Dulac (1934) tells us that the newsreel: "puts the most opposed mentalities into communication, and joins in a magnetic current the most divergent races of the world. It shows every spectator the real aspect of far off countries and men, without the official mask of tradition and historic fantasy." In lumping together (good) fiction films and newsreels as promoting a real common history of the world as opposed to an official one, Field and Dulac affirm a wish evident in Phelps’s films.

Alongside this wish for a common, alternative history, Phelps’s films also make evident the material disparities and distinctions of population that thwart it. The films both express a wish for a common history (a la Field, Dulac, and Ranciere) and reprise real distinctions of power. One way to understand how movies--potentially all movies--can  do both is to consider the theater (broadly considered) as a heterotopia, as "capable,” according to Foucault, “of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces." Like boats, brothels, and colonies, movie theaters are simultaneously "instruments of economic development" and "reserves of the imagination." Heterotopic imagination provides a necessary supplement to administrative logic, but is not extrinsic to it. Unfortunately, Foucault identifies administrative logic with "the police" (as opposed to heterotopian "pirates”). We would do better, Phelps’s films suggest, to identify it with categories of population, and above all with the insistence on uniting gender and sexual difference. A heterotopia is less a piratical space than a space that allows gender’s piratical variety and contingency to appear in juxtaposition with the seeming self-evidence of sexual difference as a global, transhistorical given. Phelps’s films show us that such spaces are not rare: countless films have produced them. They thus suggests that heterotopias are as insufficient as they are necessary. The point is not to imagine alternatives but to institutionalize them. 


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