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From the vault

Laura Mulvey

‘I think “Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema” is very much rooted in its own historical context. It couldn’t have written in any other time. It was written very much as a political manifesto.’

Laura Mulvey engages in film practice from all possible angles: as filmmaker, screenwriter, essayist, critic, academic, and teacher. Through her films – at first with Peter Wollen, later on her own –, her involvement with the British Film Institute, and her academic work at Birkbeck College, University of London, Mulvey has explored critical approaches to film theory and its intersection with her interests in the semiotics of the image, left-wing and feminist theory, and the possibilities of disrupting linearity and temporality.

Deeply involved in second wave feminism, in 1975 Laura Mulvey published the essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, widely considered a seminal feminist film theory text. Conceived as a manifesto – as Mulvey explains in this conversation – her provocative essay applied psychoanalytic theory to the imaginary produced by the cinematic apparatus of classical Hollywood cinema from the thirties to the sixties, in which the man is the bearer of the look, and the woman is the image. In the text, Mulvey also coined the notion of the “male gaze” to refer to the power asymmetry in representation and assigned gender roles, thus emphasising the patriarchal ideological agenda of the American film industry.

In this podcast, Laura Mulvey contextualises, updates, and elucidates on the far-reaching impact of this key text, which she revised in later essays such as “Death 24 x a Second. Stillness and the moving image”. At the same time, she opens up the debate with the notions of the “queer gaze” and the “universal whiteness” of Hollywood. Mulvey also defends orality as a form of "history from below", citing the example of “compilation films” (films that use archival footage re-written with new narrative) as a space for a new feminist film practice.

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