All audiences should find "visual pleasure" at the movies. Thanks to achievements by female actors and directors there are so many strong female roles and players now in 2016. It's certainly a favorable trend away from the 80s and 90s when I was dreaming to be a filmmaker as a child and teen when my early TV role models were Mary Tyler Moore, Murphy Brown, Deanna Troi and Beverly Crusher, and then Dana Scully. In 1999 I wrote this essay in hopes of one day playing with illusions and to truly see not illusions, but what I call a magical realism reflected back to me on the screen. Now on a path to seeing my dreams realized, this essay gives insight into why now for Sounds of Freedom, I find it important to have strong female characters.
Photo from the UCLA Film and Television Archive.
Julie Dash’s 1982 short film, Illusions, challenges the authority of Hollywood convention. As feminist theorist, Laura Mulvey, wrote, “there is no way in which we can produce an alternative [to convention] out of the blue, but we can begin to make a break by examining patriarchy with the tools it provides” (Mulvey 199). According to this feminist outlook, Dash superficially reconstructs classic Hollywood convention by emphasizing the dilemma the main female character, Mignon Dupree, faces while proscribing to a classic protagonist role that a male, or person of authority would follow. In select establishing character shots by her use of costuming and shot composition Dash explores the extent of Mignon’s authority as a white woman. Then, at the climax of the film when Mignon’s secret race is revealed, Dash explores the illusion of Mignon’s authority using mirrors. In turn, Hollywood’s authority in the film is portrayed as an illusion resulting in Dash’s audience struggling to find some sort of joy in this deception.
Usually, “the male protagonist is free to command the stage, a stage of spatial illusion in which he articulates the look and creates the action” (Mulvey 204). It is evident that Dash plays with the protagonist’s costuming to express the look of authority. I will first establish this authority before examining Mulvey’s compositional manipulation of the stage. In an establishing shot Dash portrays the lieutenant as an authority figure by dressing him in a uniform. Because the male protagonist wears a costume of command, typically women would dress similar to the cute and frilly secretary, who is seated below the lieutenant. This is found not to be the case as another secretary exclaims, “My don’t you look smashing!” Instead of this comment being directed to the lieutenant, it is for Mignon. Having been off camera, Mignon makes her grand entrance wearing a power suit. By dressing Mignon in a power suit, Dash immediately gives both Mignon and the lieutenant authority roles to emphasize that a woman is also being placed in a classic Hollywood protagonist role.
When Mignon and the lieutenant are framed together, compositionally Mignon rivals the male’s protagonist role and, for the beginning of the film, undermines his authority. The placement of the lieutenant in the foreground seated on the secretary’s desk and Mignon towering over her own stereotypical secretary in the background establishes that Mignon’s authority rivals that of the lieutenant. As the protagonist, the lieutenant’s freedom to command the stage should be unlimited, but it is compromised when he has a confrontation with Mignon. The lieutenant asks Mignon out and attempts to back her against the wall to intimidate her. Instead of being a submissive female that immediately swoons over this man uniform’s invading presence, Mignon maintains her authority by shrugging him off, keeps her professionalism in check, and even slaps him when he won’t leave her alone. The lieutenant, an archetypal figure for all classic male protagonists, doesn’t know how to respond to this new protagonist female. “I’ve never met a woman quite like you,” he says. Dash reveals the spatial illusion of the stage and the confused lieutenant leaves the stage that he no longer commands.
As the story progresses, the audience finds out that Mignon is “the one woman in all of Hollywood that can make executive decisions.” Despite this title of authority, her boss refuses her story ideas. In one scene Mignon confides in the black singer Esther Teeter. “I came into this world of moving shadows and I made this work for me, but I made what work? There isn’t anything here for me. There is no joy in the seduction of images,” she states. While explaining this, the camera focuses on Mignon and Esther as substantial people, but as Mignon makes her revelation, the camera slowly dollies back to reveal Mignon and Esther as simply being shadowy images framed by the walls of the studio. These are the very walls in which these two talented woman are trying to scale to make their voices be heard. In Mignon’s final confrontation with the lieutenant, scaling these walls seems even more daunting because inter-cut with Mignon’s dilemma, the lieutenant does some snooping and finds out that fair skinned Mignon is not a white woman, but a black woman.
Contrary to their establishing scene, when the lieutenant confronts Mignon about this lie, Dash reveals Mignon’s dominant authority to be an illusion. In one shot the lieutenant sits in a commanding position at the desk while only an illusion of Mignon is shown in the mirror on the wall behind the desk. Previously, costuming had created authority, but here Mignon’s image of having white skin color holds only superficial authority. Unfortunately, Mignon’s authority is only an image as represented by the mirror. “Now I’ve become an illusion, just like the stories made here,” says Mignon.
There is an assumption that classical Hollywood cinema has become so attuned to all audience’s needs for escapism that Hollywood successfully seduces all audiences into a world of illusion without then even knowing it. To film theorists such as Mulvey, audiences mustn’t assume, but begin to realize the deception of illusions. Perhaps the guarantee of satisfaction from illusion holds up best for the target audience of teenage males, but for the rest of the audience, especially that of women and of women of minority groups, the main characters reconstructed in Illusions say it best. “There is no joy in moving images,” no joy in relating to women who have bit parts as “musical props… comic relief,” no joy in being expected to “pretend that’s me up there in a satin gown.” Dash’s film, full of frustrations, may not provide joy, but certainly takes a more active role in examining conventions in an attempt so that one day, all audiences can find Mulvey’s visual pleasure at the movies.
Illusions. Dir. Julie Dash. Per. Rosane Katon, Lonette McKee. 1982.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Visual and Other Pleasures.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.