By Claudia Gorbman
Revised and updated version of an essay originally published in Jump Cut, no. 29, February 1984, pp. 48, 70.
JoAnn Elam’s Lie Back and Enjoy It (1982) gets a lot done in eight minutes. It’s a dialectical film about the politics of representation of women under patriarchy. In the image, all we see is some pointed/printed titles and manipulated images of a woman or women, presumably taken from porn or old film leader. On the soundtrack we hear a dialogue between a Man (a filmmaker) and a Woman (whom he’s going to make a film about). You might see this as a feminist rejoinder to Poe’s short story “The Oval Portrait” or Godard’s film Vivre sa vie (1962).
Elam’s earlier film Rape (1975) similarly put together several kinds of film material: video-transfer, cinema-verité footage, studio-shot footage, handwritten title cards, and, on the soundtrack, a conversation among the women who are shown in the video portions. In opposition to “realist” cinema, Rape not only acknowledges but stresses the heterogeneity of materials that go into films. Lie Back’s formal strategy emphasizes diverse kinds of film discourse even further. It sets up a radical disjunction between soundtrack and image, such that the only way we can connect up sound and image is by doing a little intellectual work, rather than through fantasy dependent on an illusion of wholeness.
The image shows mostly head shots of a bare-shouldered woman. The shots become progressively more deformed and distorted through looping, flicker effects, reversing the image (L-R), showing sprocket holes and frame lines, running the frames by in a blur as if the film is slipping in the projector gate, high-contrast reprinting, superimpositions, and underexposure. All these devices make the image more and more difficult to read, and subsequently point to the image’s materiality, its status as strips of printed celluloid that run through machines. The point being made is that a woman’s image in films — no matter, or because of, how much we psychically invest in it — is just that: an investment, a product, and a commodity that functions in a certain economy. Lie Back chooses to use the pornography footage in order to draw these connections most unequivocally: the woman’s body on the screen is something desired, reified, invaded, paid for. The Woman’s voice in the film says, “… there’s no way you can use [sic] a woman without making her into an object and invading her space.”
On screen, titles appear on occasion, interspersed like Burma-Shave signs along the unsettling scenery of the manipulated close-ups. The first three read:
something to me
This kind of wordplay, which Elam already employed in Rape, draws thought-provoking connections between sexuality, popular culture and language, as well as the power relation between the artist and his model. What does the man do to the woman, and vice versa? How does the artist transform the “real” model? What violence might this include? How is this sexy?
The soundtrack consists of a dialogue between a Man’s voice and a Woman’s voice (let’s call them M and W). For those hooked on the pleasure of conventional movie storytelling, the conversation seems to exist in a believable space and has “characters,” and so it holds out the promise of rewards of auditory voyeurism — or let’s say eavesdroppeurism. As we listen, M and W are sitting in their kitchen. He’s a filmmaker planning to shoot a “personal” film about her and about their relationship. She has her doubts about the project. Increasingly, though, and almost seamlessly, their conversation passes from a believably fictional mode (in a fictional world we can imagine) to a critical mode. First slippage: W refers to the tape recorder. Why, if they’re discussing a film he’s going to make, is a tape recorder running in their kitchen? A character thus acknowledges the discourse, the fact of the recording — it’s a “mistake” no self-effacing conventional narrative movie would make. Soon after, W asks M, “You think the fact that this is a man’s voice and a woman’s voice has anything to do with how people are going to relate to it?” With that comment, it’s getting difficult to believe in the initial narrative premise any more. Toward the end, their discussion turns on M’s claim that in making his movie he’ll merely be filming “what’s really going on” rather than directing the material’s shape in accord with his fantasies. W socratically talks M into a logical corner; M then chuckles, “Uh oh, I think you’ve got me on this one!” We’ve moved from two characters — an ideologically innocent filmmaker and a recalcitrant protagonist-to-be — to two film theorists enjoying the interplay of their debating positions. In fact, the film ends when M refers to it — not the film he was going to make, but the one he’s in.
The discussion, then, proceeds dialectically. Each voice represents a position. M describes himself as an artist. At least at first, he claims a sort of innocent neutrality regarding the politics of representation. His art will get at “the truth” via his vision.
I’m just making a film about us. I mean, what does all this culture stuff have to do with that? I mean, that’s why I’m making personal films.
Art is subjective expression — the artist’s inner expression transcends history, politics, culture. (That privilege of self-expression has traditionally belonged to men — and still does.) But for W, representations are products of their culture and they are necessarily determined by it. Representation itself is a political issue also in the sense that a power relationship obtains between the person behind the camera and the person being filmed, and it’s irresponsible to deny or ignore this. As with the girl in “The Oval Portrait” and Nana in Vivre sa vie, the male artist “uses up” his female model, literally saps the life out of her. Lie Back’s W refuses this murder.
The force of the visuals, and W’s persuasive arguments in the face of M’s innocence, make it abundantly evident that Elam aligns herself with W’s position. At the same time, the movie works to caution against any hasty dismissal of M. For one thing, he sounds like a pretty nice guy. Second, he represents the dominant canon of artistic creation in the modern western world. It’s the one most people have inherited:
I’m an artist. I’m trying to find out the truth about things. To make (films) that will make people feel better and learn something of the world and give them more control over things, and I’m trying to enlarge people’s experience with my films.
It’s hard to deny the compelling “rightness” of his statements, even when the twentieth century so conclusively vetoed the possibility of such a thing as “the truth.” As for W, our sympathies waver when her radicalism carries her to the point of rejecting any attempts to make images of women.
I wish that these male filmmakers would stop, you know, putting all these women in their films. I wish that they would just give up … you should have no women in your films.
Finally, when W utters her last words, a strident “I’m right and you’re wrong!” it’s clear that Elam has set these characters up to receive equal consideration. Each has virtues and faults. What M lacks in intellectual sophistication, he makes up for in earnestness and personal charm. W’s ideological consciousness-raising is crucial, but her irritably uttered challenges threaten to obliterate human interaction from among the possibilities of progressive art. We’re not left to “lie back” but precisely to judge the positions that its voices have argued.
If you set up a dialectical situation in order to lead people to consider the possible synthesis of ideas presented, ultimately, you have a didactic purpose. Where does Elam’s film lead us? An undergraduate male student paid it a compliment in declaring that he can no longer look at a woman in a film without thinking about the consequences of the filmmaker’s use of her as a person and as a spectacle. Lie Back encourages analysis, all the more so since its own structure moves from positioning the audience in a (minimally) voyeuristic stance to a maximally critical one. The film conveys remarkable structural and rhetorical lucidity.
As Canyon Cinema showcases Lie Back and Enjoy It 36 years after it first appeared, I’m struck by how different my viewings of it in 1982 and 2018 have been. M and W, its two conversing voices, were the voices of filmmaker Elam herself and Chuck Kleinhans, the activist teacher, scholar, and co-founder and lifetime co-editor (with his wife Julia Lesage) of the unpretentious and indispensable journal JUMP CUT. The Chicago independent film people associated with Chicago Filmmakers and JUMP CUT enjoyed years of group movie screenings, dinners, and joyfully intense conversation in the 1970s and 80s. Elam died in 2009; Kleinhans just before Christmas of 2017. Lie Back’s soundtrack feels more like a documentary now: Chuck and Jo Ann role-playing over a tape recorder in a kitchen, enjoying the game they have set for themselves. And so a seemingly austere experimental movie becomes a tender postcard from a more idealistic and humane time.
Claudia Gorbman is professor emerita of film studies at the University of Washington Tacoma. She continues to write about film music and sound, and has translated several books by French critic Michel Chion.