David G. Hughes talks to Professor Camille Paglia about her work on Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and much more
Camille Paglia is the irrepressible Id of the cultural establishment. Whether it’s bourgeois feminism, obtuse academia, or the elitist arts industry, she inevitably returns to ruffle complacent feathers. As University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts since 1984, she’s an erudite art scholar but popularly known as a firebrand feminist loyal to the liberating, universalist imperative of her 1960s upbringing. She calls her attitude “street smart Amazonian feminism”, a pugilistic, swashbuckling ethos which contrasts to what Paglia sees as the dominant mode of hapless victimisation amongst younger middle-class women. Paglia would much rather women cut men down with words, when required, but also respect masculine virtue and male accomplishment if earned.
Paglia comes from working-class Catholic heritage, the second generation of Italian immigrants. But to the public, she emerged in 1990 fully-formed and armour-clad like Athena from Zeus’ forehead with the publication of her magnum opus Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, which established her as a major commentator and public intellectual. There is no “early” Paglia or “late-style” Paglia; her opinion has remained consistent decades since, a certitude instilled from the superlative level of research she applies to her pursuits.
But as with many loose-lipped personages of working-class origin, her speech often gets her into trouble. Paglia divides opinion and is no stranger to controversy. She has an innate aptitude for media performance, but one can easily mistake her for a “contrarian” or “provocateur” when, in fact, her corpus is studious and consistent, something that separates her from many au courant public intellectuals.
Through the extensive study of art history, Paglia has developed a way of looking at the world rooted in the dust-covered sections of the library most other scholars scarcely tread. She’s read in Germanic philology, classical aesthetics, ancient antiquity, and comparative religion, and inspired by thinkers in analytical psychology including C.G. Jung and Erich Neumann. Like Freud, whom she defends, her first great interest was archaeology, and she’s unafraid to relate her empirical observations of mundane everyday life with extramundane truisms. The dominant names that makeup citations today—Foucault, Derrida, Lacan—she reserves the most scorn for. Don’t read Foucault, would be Paglia’s advice, read an actual sociologist: Erving Goffman. She would much rather trace ideas back to their roots, a penchant that invariably leads to recognition of the primacy of nature and history. Compared to the power of these forces, Paglia laughs at haughty modern delusions of mastery and sophistication.
Paglia sees the great story of civilisation as an eternal, cyclical battle between two competing metaphysical forces, a leitmotif she designates “Pagan” and “Judeo-Christian”. Paganism signifies amoral chthonian nature, cruelty, the visually spectacular, and the sensual—sexuality in all its guises and discontents. Judeo-Christianity is associated with the invisible, the linguistic, and the conceptual—puritanism and idealism. It’s a battle of things against ideas, nature against nurture, Apollo against Dionysus, Rousseau against Hobbes. Crucially, we can observe which is winning thanks to the arts, which reveal our cycles. In Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars Paglia writes, “Civilization is defined by law and art. Laws govern our external behaviour, while art expresses our soul.” For Paglia, art is indispensable to a functioning society and, at its best, serves the pagan Gods. She is often revulsed by the alienating faux-intellectualism of modern artworks and identifies art-making as a fundamentally blue-collar profession, “closer to carpenters and welders than they are to intellectuals and academics”. Oppositional art is dead and what’s left is the performative (and financially rewarding) outrage of the white-collar bourgeoisie. Paglia celebrates Greco-Roman resurgence wherever it’s found, such as Renaissance Italy’s publicly displayed monuments “uniting the social classes in common emotion.” In this manner, the Palazzo Vecchio of Florence is a testament to radical populist expression not too different from the cinema, a continuation of the same impulses that descend from antiquity.
But while Paglia advocates pagan expression, she has deep respect for the structures of society and language. She’ll promote transgressive art but extol the need for a civilisation that keeps our base impulses in check. She’s an atheist but adores religious cosmology. As in Catholicism, Paglia says we should absorb the pagan influence, rather than repress it. This is a nuance many of her opponents—conservative Christians and leftist intellectuals alike—will seemingly never appreciate. Her defence of societal structures and the art canon has led to accusations of “conservatism”, but typical of Paglia’s broad perspective she points out that terms “conservative” and “liberal”—seemingly the only axis with which we now interpret the world today—are relatively new and parochial terms that reveal the presentism of her critic. Ask about her politics and she’ll often turn it into a question of aesthetics—the true hierarchy of things. This is perhaps why the affect-driven Trump phenomenon was unsurprising to her, even as she supported Bernie Sanders.
Whether you are inclined to agree with Paglia’s sweeping ideas, few can deny the vivacity with which she promotes them. She does not simply verbalise her thoughts at a podium, she embodies them. She promotes free speech and exercises that right gleefully; her aptitude for breathless, articulate verbiage never fails to impress or entertain. Her language, written and spoken, is crisp, cutting, and encyclopedic. Her physicality when lecturing, swinging her arms with alacrity, grimacing or chortling in repulsion or approval, speaks to an individual who has physically absorbed the iconic gestures of the Western art canon. You may even catch the exact moment when an otherwise sanguine Paglia suddenly enters a state of trance, or revelry, like a Saint Vitus dance, never to return until forced by the event organisers.
Yet for all this, Paglia remains a humble and committed pedagog dedicated to her profession. Only when that she admires is under attack does she scurry out of the classroom, defending the borders of the art canon from whatever new fad of philistine puritanism threatens it (Marxism, in one of her many aperçus, is dismissed as “the bleakest anxiety formation against chthonian nature”). Paglia gladly assumes the role of a resolute caryatid, preventing antiquity’s vital influence from collapsing.
One would think that for someone with so much to say about the image, Paglia would occupy an important position in Film Studies. I don’t recall a single mention of Paglia’s name throughout my own education, overlooked in favour of her feminist opponents Laura Mulvey and Judith Butler. The stately Mulvey and obscurantist Butler, theorists of the “male gaze” and “gender performativity” respectively, fit the academic mould easier than Paglia’s machine gun unpredictability. While Butler and Mulvey are accepted and proliferated in the academy, often described as “radical”, it is in fact Paglia who sits outside persona non grata, a splinter cell resistance. Yet Paglia admires film critics like Parker Tyler, Andrew Sarris, and Pauline Kael, and she considers studio-era Hollywood as one of the most fruitful Greco-Roman resurgences in all of art history. She’s written many essays on film and she’s even been in them, recently seen in the documentary What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael (2018) and more centre-stage in the short movie Glennda and Camille Do Downtown (1993), a 29-minute short video later shortened to 15-minutes and transferred to 16mm for inclusion in the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, in which we see Paglia at her most belligerent. It later won First Prize for Best Short Documentary at the Chicago Underground Film Festival in 1994.
Perhaps Paglia’s most recognised writing on film is her book on Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), part of the BFI Film Classics series originally published in 1998. A hundred-page detailed analysis, Hitchcock, with his interest in voyeurism and Sadean impulses that underlie our society, is a filmmaker Paglia would intuitively align with. The slim book is Paglia at her most discerning, precise, and enjoyable. When news reached us that it would be getting a second edition from Bloomsbury Publishing, alongside a myriad of others in the series, we saw it as a great excuse to get in touch and discuss topics in cinema.
Professor Paglia took time out of her current research project on the art and religion of Native Americans of the Northeastern U.S. during the Stone Age (which she’s been working on for over a decade) to exchange cordial emails and answer our questions. Even over email, the impression Paglia gives is a lover of detail and language, a punctilious professional with a passion for her work and the integrity of her corpus. We discussed her ideas, her writing process, and her opinion on the artistic state of movies generally.
Electric Ghost Magazine: Your thesis that Hitchcock’s The Birds depicts recrudescent “angry nature” forcing civilization into regression is very pertinent at this particular time of COVID-19, as we make bunkers of our homes like those in the Brenner house against the birds. What does Hitchcock’s film teach us about our current moment?
Camille Paglia: The analogy to today’s global virus crisis is very compelling. The Birds demonstrates the fragility and folly of all human artifice. When omnipotent nature turns on mankind, everything falls to pieces—from protective dwellings to personal dignity and social cohesiveness. Unleashing the birds like a black plague, Hitchcock attacks the sentimental illusions that allow us to survive and thrive in our daily routines. The film has a metaphysical sweep, exposing the terrifying great unknowns at the heart of human existence.
As for the present time, Western developed nations have become too smugly complacent about their advanced technology and prosperity. Our electronic systems and intricate international supply and distribution network function so smoothly that they have become invisible to the affluent upper-middle-class, comfortably working from home via computer. These arrogant masters of the machine attribute all human ills to unjust society—from hurricanes to global warming, as if puny mankind is capable of such staggering power. Like Greek tragedy, The Birds shows the grim reality—human helplessness in the face of nature and fate, as commerce, schooling, hospitality, and the pretty dance of courtship are reduced to horror and squalor.
The artwork adorning the new edition of your book depicts the jungle gym covered with voracious crows. This seems to be the central image of the film in your imagination, which you say “came to symbolise civilisation for me”. Could you explain what is so powerful about this image?
From the moment I first saw The Birds (just after I graduated from high school, a year after the film’s release), I was transfixed by the sculptural monumentality of Hitchcock’s jungle gym, which made me see that familiar playground fixture in a new and austere way. It seemed to express the internal structure of culture, whose multiple historic forms I had been reading about for years in my early study of archaeology. (My first career ambition was to be an Egyptologist, so I had already learned a lot about the rise and fall of ancient Near Eastern empires.)
The jungle gym has stayed with me as a paradigm of my own work as a culture critic: in approaching any subject, popular or academic, I feel I am clambering and groping my way to find the invisible inner frame that gives order to the scattered fragments of human experience. Hence the shock of Hitchcock’s scene, as iron clarity of form (the product of human virtuosity) is smothered in a heaving mass of carrion crows, gathering to launch their attack on a schoolhouse, representing both the past and future of homo sapiens.
“I sought readability and flow, along with a steady accretion of minute detail. I wanted the reader to feel the film itself was unfurling before his or her eyes.”
Reading your interpretation of The Birds, it’s notable just how well the film corresponds to your life’s work. Was it your idea to write on The Birds or was it pitched to you? Moreover, do you feel it was your job to apply your established Paglia-isms to the film? Or did you let your ideas manifest themselves during the writing and research process?
I had long admired the British Film Institute’s elegant Film Classics paperbacks, so I was thrilled to receive a letter from the general editor inviting me to contribute to the series. By that point in the late 1990s, I had published three books and been writing extensively for media, so my love of popular culture was well-known. He asked what films I might be interested in discussing, and I sent a short list of my favorites, from which the BFI chose The Birds.
This slim book took a full year of intense focus. I had the great advantage of home videotape, unavailable to early commentators on Hitchcock. I was able to study the film minutely, pausing at length to scrutinize the clothing and background of each scene. The miracle of freeze-frame led to my discovery of a moment that normally flies by too fast to absorb: when the frightened Melanie Daniels raises her exquisitely manicured hands against the brittle glass of the telephone booth, being slammed by malicious birds. BFI technicians were able to capture that striking image for a full-color illustration, which I remain very proud of. It is such a testament to Hitchcock’s artistic instinct for fetishistic perfection.
Regarding the text itself, I sought readability and flow, along with a steady accretion of minute detail. I wanted the reader to feel the film itself was unfurling before his or her eyes. It was vital to document Hitchcock’s singular conflation of beauty and horror as well as his unrivalled gift for wringing humor from the ghoulish and grotesque. Scene by scene, I systematically noted connections and parallels to Hitchcock’s other films. Throughout the book, I strove to establish Hitchcock’s deep knowledge of the visual arts, especially Surrealism, the movement to which his work belongs. Hitchcock’s cultivated taste in art, for which his greengrocer father had little evident sympathy, has been obscured by his reputation for crime drama and erotic sensationalism.
Another major goal of the book was to honor Tippi Hedren: when I read through the critical literature on The Birds, I was appalled at how massively her superb performance had been ignored. Feminist ideologues had reduced and marginalized her to helpless victim status. Tendentious biopic films have joined the drum-beating about Hitchcock’s “misogyny”—which as I have repeatedly argued is a naively simplistic way of understanding male ambivalence toward women, particularly among major creative artists. A thesis of my first book, Sexual Personae, was that men’s titanic achievement in culture was in fact partly inspired by fear of and rivalry with women’s overwhelming power, invisibly operating above and beneath the social realm.
I don’t recall the other suggested film titles in my original response to the BFI: the correspondence is buried somewhere in my literary archive (to be donated to the Yale Library). I suspect there are clues in the roster I chose for “Camille Does the Movies”, a series that the National Film Theatre invited me to host in 1999. The list (in order of the films’ first release): The Philadelphia Story (1940), Orphée (1950), All About Eve (1950), Niagara (1953), The Ten Commandments (1956), Auntie Mame (1958), Suddenly Last Summer (1959), La Dolce Vita (1960), Butterfield 8 (1960), Darling (1965), Persona (1966), Accident (1967), and Valley of the Dolls (1967). Salon.com, where I was a longtime columnist, reprinted my program notes for that film series, as well as my diary for the NFT tour to Sheffield and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where Ingmar Bergman’s Persona was screened, followed by my lecture.
Also shown at that London festival was Glennda and Camille Do Downtown, a 29-minute 1993 film directed by and starring Glenn Belverio in his flamboyant drag persona of Glennda Orgasm. Glenn and I had romped around Greenwich Village satirically zinging feminist puritanism in a way that evidently remains relevant, judging by the response to the film in the British exhibition Still I Rise: Feminisms, Gender, Resistance, which was staged in 2018 at Nottingham Contemporary and in 2019 at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea and at Bristol’s Arnolfini Centre for Contemporary Arts.
“My approach to art is grounded in the sensory. Art is not philosophy. Art by definition refracts meaning through some medium of the material world. Hence my interpretation of art is grounded in the five senses.”
Your book venerates Hedren’s power and dynamism. I find this interesting as Melanie Daniels is a naïve bourgeois woman and if Camille Paglia had a bête noire it would surely be the naïve bourgeois woman. How do you conceptualise Daniels/Hedren in relation to your ideas of empowering Amazonian feminism?
Well, first of all, I would never characterize Melanie Daniels as a “naïve bourgeois woman”. The word “bourgeois” would be far more applicable to Catherine Deneuve’s role in Belle de Jour (1967) or those of Stéphane Audran and Delphine Seyrig in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) (both directed by the fiercely anti-bourgeois Luis Buñuel).
Melanie is a spoiled, prankish heiress, the jet-setting scion of a San Francisco newspaper magnate in the Hearst dynastic mode. Hitchcock has placed her in a cinematic tradition descending from 1930s screwball comedy, with its night-crawling café society, scavenger hunts, and madcap debutantes (played by Carole Lombard, et al.). Melanie’s games (horseplay at a fountain in Rome; training a gift parrot with four-letter words; smuggling a bird cage in a rowboat across Bodega Bay) are not bourgeois pursuits but privileged, careless, tomboyish limits-testing.
I have been fascinated by this spirited American archetype of the 1920s and ‘30s (a cheeky product of first-wave feminism after suffrage was won) ever since I first saw The Philadelphia Story on late-night TV during adolescence. (I probably have seen it 200 times since.) Katharine Hepburn’s Tracy Lord was based on a real-life heiress on the Philadelphia Main Line, Hope Montgomery Scott, a stylish socialite and self-described cocktails-loving “party girl”, a champion equestrienne and cattle-breeder whose adventurousness and charisma scarcely dimmed until her death at age 90 in 1995 (after a fall on ice while leading two donkeys into the barn).
Elegant, fur-clad Melanie Daniels, roaring her open sportscar through sharp curves on the coastal highway, is in that tradition—an American version of the British landed aristocracy. Incidentally, although I am not normally an autograph seeker, I got Hope Scott’s signature one year at the Main Line’s Devon Horse Show. Then in her 80s, she was cheerily striding in full riding gear toward the ring. Every person within a hundred feet, and especially the young women, many of them dressed for competition, visibly felt her star quality.
You often situate your ideas in reference to things like geography, the animal kingdom, sexuality, history, and tidbits of quirky detail—earthly, tangible things. It’s different from the dominant theoretical approach in film interpretation, and there’s humour. Would you describe your work as atheoretical, or even anti-theoretical?
What has been called “theory” since the arrival of deconstruction in elite U.S. universities in the 1970s is in my view one of the most pointless and pretentious movements in modern cultural history. The catastrophic results should be obvious by now: the humanities are in ruin and have lost public respect and even internal support in academe, where budget reduction has come to the fore. I would refer those seeking greater specifics to my long attack on poststructuralism, “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf”, published by Arion in 1991. Seven years ago, I did a follow-up assessment of current “theory” when the Chronicle of Higher Education asked me to review three new academic books by women about the bondage and domination trend. My unhappy response was “Scholars in Bondage”, which laments the damage done to promising young professors by a tyrannical academic establishment still chained to the bleached-out corpse of “theory”.
My approach to art is grounded in the sensory. Art is not philosophy. Art by definition refracts meaning through some medium of the material world. Hence my interpretation of art is grounded in the five senses. Perhaps the only theorist who fully grasped this issue was Gaston Bachelard in his 1957 book, The Poetics of Space, animated by a phenomenology that partly aligns with my own practice. It is no coincidence that I have spent most of my teaching career at art schools, where the body remains front and center in most art forms. Digital genres are certainly spreading and flourishing, but dance, music, and theater remain grounded in physicality—which is partly why art schools are finding it so difficult to adapt to the harsh, distancing realities of the virus crisis.
“Film studies became infested with tedious palaver that reduces every object it contemplates to opaque mush. Formulaic suspicion and hostility to the putative subject of discussion became the compulsory badge of armchair politics…”
I find your writing extremely quotable, attributable to your punchy style of writing. I know you are inspired by the epigrammatic style of Oscar Wilde, but does this prose manifest itself intuitively as you write or does it require disciplinary conscious motivation?
One of the most influential books of my life was The Epigrams of Oscar Wilde, which at age fourteen I stumbled on in a secondhand bookshop in Syracuse in upstate New York. I studied it like the Bible! Wilde’s war against hypocritical humanitarian sentimentality in Victorian England was positively electrifying to a fractious adolescent stifled by the middlebrow conformism and censorship of the postwar United States. (I was then in open rebellion via my ecstatic devotion to Elizabeth Taylor as a high-profile Manhattan call-girl in Butterfield 8.)
That book overflows with amazing provocations, such as “Football is all very well as a game for rough girls, but it is hardly suitable for delicate boys.” I went around school loudly reciting this Wildean send-up of pious nostrums: “People who count their chickens before they are hatched act very wisely, because chickens run about so absurdly that it is impossible to count them accurately.”
I’ve always been drawn to the axiomatic minimalism of proverbs and paradoxes, such as “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last” (from a parable of Jesus in the Book of Matthew). Also, I grew up in a boom era of American advertising slogans, which fascinated me as much as they did Andy Warhol, another product of an immigrant family: “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should”; “See the USA in your Chevrolet”; “Blondes have more fun”.
My pithy style is completely instinctive, like a weapon of war or the one-liners of stand-up comedians (Joan Rivers was an idol). Indeed, I must often stifle this reflex in live interviews, where it might be best to avoid excess ad hominem color. Among my favorite maxims in Sexual Personae is “There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper.” I’m also very fond of “The cat is the least Christian inhabitant of the average home” (where one can hear the legacy of 1950s commercial advertising).
I began to respond to your work during my postgraduate studies. I assumed my colleagues pursuing film studies would have a foundational enthusiasm for the thing they were studying. Rather, I discovered that many were ignorant of the medium and also suspicious of it. As if possessed by the spirit of Girolamo Savonarola, many harboured destructive, puritanical impulses, determined to point out the ideological shortcomings of the canon, including the work of Hitchcock. In my naïve reverence of the art, I found this alienating and demoralising. Your articulation of this problem is what first attracted me to your work. Could you speak to what you see as the necessary reverence towards the work of art? Is this enthusiasm legitimate in an academic context?
Academic film studies shot itself in the foot from the moment of its birth. There had always been film-making schools and programs, notably in Los Angeles, but movies were still not taken seriously by traditional humanities departments even when I entered graduate school in the late 1960s. Low-budget postwar foreign films with their bleak themes of existential angst helped to redefine and elevate cinema at a time when Hollywood, struggling to compete with television, was in its most luridly Technicolor, wide-screen phase. But I certainly recall the open dismissiveness of senior literature faculty at Yale toward film in general and specifically toward Hollywood, about which I rashly babbled my admiration.
As they spread in the 1970s, formal film studies programs felt underrated and nervously tried to prove their academic legitimacy by importing the brand-new, ultra-hip contraptions of labyrinthine continental “theory”—a fatal error. That was the origin of the cynical “debunking” methodology that you rightly complain of. Film studies became infested with tedious palaver that reduces every object it contemplates to opaque mush. Formulaic suspicion and hostility to the putative subject of discussion became the compulsory badge of armchair politics, a shadow play geared for the academic job market.
My approach to art is completely the opposite. Except when an artist or work is grossly overrated, I try to enhance appreciation and intensify response. Indeed, Appreciations is the title of an 1889 book by Walter Pater, the Oxford aesthete who helped create the milieu that shaped Oscar Wilde as a student at Oxford. I always seek to expand and multiply meaning, not to undermine or destroy it! And as a teacher, I try to heighten awareness and encourage enthusiasm, a word that descends from the fervor and intoxication of Dionysian rituals.
The film studies professors who stampeded toward “theory” were faithless shepherds whose negligence and overt vandalism aborted an exciting new field of scholarship and deprived thousands of film students of an authentic education in the arts.
“The hidden message, so dispiriting and limiting for young people, is: do not trust your instincts; do not respond to beauty and pleasure; censor your dreams; avoid spontaneity; obey the program of your punitive elders!”
In Laura Mulvey’s recently published collection of new essays, she writes on Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958): “Returning to the film in 2015 and with the help of passing time, Vertigo seemed to be more complex and self aware than I had previously realized in the early 1970s.” She admits that Hitchcock’s relationship with women is fractured and more complicated than the sadomasochistic voyeurism model she popularised. This seemed to vindicate your long-standing defence of Hitchcock’s ambivalence towards women, as you’ve written about in your essay “Women and Magic in Alfred Hitchcock” and spoken of in your interview for the Screen Violence collection. Yet, a polemical Mulveyan language of gaze dominates discussion around Hitchcock. What are the shortcomings of this approach in your mind? And how do you account for Mulvey’s consecration in academic circles?
I receive this news of Laura Mulvey’s recantation about Vertigo with surprise and alarm. It took Mulvey, the leading woman film theorist, over 40 years to recognize the artistic power of that magnificent film?
Every ten years since 1952, the BFI’s magazine, Sight & Sound, has conducted a worldwide poll of film critics for its list of the greatest films of all time. In 2012, Vertigo displaced Citizen Kane for number one, after the latter film’s 50-year run in the top spot. With its piercing emotions, gorgeous photography, and torrential soundtrack by Bernard Herrmann, Vertigo is not just a film: it is a life experience, haunting, mesmerizing, saturating–a world in itself.
When I was in London for the NFT film festival in 1999, Laura Mulvey came to a casual lunch for me with BFI staff. She was very cordial and amiable, and I would have liked to know her better. However, my problems with her seminal essay, “Narrative Cinema and Visual Pleasure” (1975), remain.
This article, with its theory of the “male gaze”, attained instant canonical status in nascent film studies and women’s studies because of its polemical anti-male stance as well as its Lacanian psychoanalytic approach. The post-structuralist Jacques Lacan, who has thankfully long vanished from the campus pantheon, was then ultra-hot. Women literature professors preaching Lacan were rocketing to the top of elite academe in the U.S.
The insularity and provincialism of Lacanian analysis can be briefly seen in Mulvey’s essay when she approvingly cites his famous theory of the allegedly central “mirror” phase in child development. Evidently, the basic point never occurred to Lacan’s credulous acolytes that mirrors are not universals of world history but luxury items whose number and quality even for aristocrats did not improve until relatively modern times.
Mulvey’s essay has a grim, implacable tone. There is hardly a moment where one feels affection for or engagement with art. Everything is reduced to power dynamics in the oppressive “phallocentric order”, a battle that women can never win. The artist is a devious schemer, while the general audience is treated as passive, manipulated. The hidden message, so dispiriting and limiting for young people, is: do not trust your instincts; do not respond to beauty and pleasure; censor your dreams; avoid spontaneity; obey the program of your punitive elders!
In short, this was the ideal manifesto (turgidly packed but not too long) for the new feminism, which still subordinates art to politics and sees the world in paranoid terms as a conspiracy by men against women. What is seriously missing from Mulvey’s essay is reference to any other theory of perception, grounded in art history (to which cinema, as a visual medium, belongs). There is also no anthropological breadth: is the “male gaze” a human universal or not?
In Sexual Personae, which was based not on the cloistered ruminations of a Parisian male theorist stuck on linguistics but on actual research into world history and culture, my chapter on ancient Egypt is called “The Birth of the Western Eye”. I argue that it was in Egypt that dominant Western vision and cognition were born, eventually leading to the great modern genre of cinema, with its aggressive, intrusive camera eye.
You do seem to share with Mulvey apathy towards contemporary cinema, something you discuss in your new foreword. You very rarely speak positively about contemporary cinema, with the exception of Basic Instinct (1992), Revenge of the Sith (2005) and, most recently, Hustlers (2019). In fact, while you’re a staunch defender of the arts, your new preface registers resignation to the fact that cinema is something that once was but is thus no longer, as a brief Renaissance period. What is lacking in contemporary cinema for you? Are there any films that you’ve watched recently and admired?
Yes, my new foreword to The Birds sadly declares that the great age of cinema is over. It lasted for a spectacular century–which is actually longer than other important movements in the arts, such as Greek tragedy, Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, Romantic ballet, and atonal music.
In 1961, when I was in junior high school, I began keeping a log of movies that I saw in theaters. I noted who I was with and added some brief exclamatory remarks. The number of movies swelled as I got to college and graduate school, when riveting foreign films had great visibility. In 1973, while teaching at my first job in remote Bennington, Vermont, I was still able to see 91 films.
My log shows a rapid decline in numbers in the 1980s, when movies became available on videotape and cable TV. By the 1990s, there were only two or three movies per year that I thought worth trekking to a theater for. By 2011, I stopped going to theaters altogether and now simply wait for new releases to reach TV. My log has been blank for nine years.
Sharon Stone’s bravura performance as a Hitchcockian femme fatale in Basic Instinct (for which she deserved the Oscar) seemed to portend a return to the mythological dimension of film. (I did the commentary for the DVD of Basic Instinct at Philadelphia’s legendary Sigma Sound Studios, where David Bowie had partly recorded his Young Americans album.) But even that indelible movie showed signs of creative breakdown: the second half of Basic Instinct is an ugly, gory muddle that I categorically refuse to watch.
Revenge of the Sith, the closing chapter in my book about the visual arts, Glittering Images, represents the epic virtuosity of George Lucas’ pioneering digital studio. My focus is on the volcano planet climax, where a malfunctioning industrial complex majestically disintegrates into the churning lava—a tremendous spectacle dramatizing my usual theme, the omnipotence of impersonal nature. That agonizing closing sequence in Revenge of the Sith has true sublimity, and I pity anyone who is incapable of recognizing it.
As for Hustlers, its instant commercial success demonstrated how eagerly the public responds to fresh incarnations of the sex symbol, which I have called “arguably Hollywood’s most brilliant artifact”. [“The Death of the Hollywood Sex Symbol”—Hollywood Reporter] Jennifer Lopez, as steely as medieval armor, shows off her phenomenal athleticism on the strip-club pole, but the movie clumsily mishandles and short-shrifts her. Despite some amusing moments, Hustlers is a mess: it’s hard to decide what is worst—photography, editing, music (rap segueing to Chopin?!), or character development. Constance Wu, a comedic natural, is forced to look Very, Very Worried for an hour at a time, while the rollicking Cardi B and Lizzo are explosively sensational but barely used.
It’s probably the disastrous decline in cinematography, lighting, and editing that most repels me about current movies. In this age of jittery, cartoonish videogames, few filmmakers seem to know how to use the camera to create physical terrestrial space as well as density of character. Mise-en-scène—the background details that provide social context—is a lost art. Movies are being carelessly shot like garish TV sit-coms, with a huge visual loss. Cinematographers are failing to study their own art, including the history of painting, with its Renaissance rediscovery of composition and perspective. Today’s filmmakers seem to think the world began with Richard Lester’s manic adaptation of Godard’s fluid hand-held camera.
My passion for film is undimmed, but it is now focused on cable TV’s Turner Classic Movies, with its mammoth archive of Hollywood treasures. My ambition is to see and study every possible surviving movie, both major and minor, from the great Hollywood studio era (mid-1920s to mid-1960s). I’m interested in the totality of production and distribution—script, casting, direction, financing, sets, props, lighting, costumes, makeup, titles, soundtrack, publicity, reviews, and awards. Movies for me may have become archaeological, but they remain totally alive.
Camille Paglia’s most recent collection of essays, Provocations: Collected Essays on Art, Feminism, Politics, Sex, and Education, is available now.