And furthermore ...

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Sunday, 12 December 2010


Cinema film stills and portraits

My mother said it was simple to keep a man, you must be a maid in the living room, a cook in the kitchen and a whore in the bedroom.”
Jerry Hall

When Cindy Sherman exhibited the first Untitled Film Stills in 1978 she didn’t change ideas about women in cinema so much as confirm them. People were already very familiar with the stereotypes Hollywood had thrown at them for the last seventy years; the whore with a heart of gold, the sacred mother, the ingénue waiting to be rescued, the dumb blonde, the feisty redhead, the conniving brunette. Great actresses, we were told, created their own personas but they didn’t really. They were given a recipe, so to speak, sent into the kitchen and if the result didn’t meet expectations they were passed over. Sherman was astute. She avoided the high end of Hollywood, opting for B movies. There’s a sense with a lot of her images that you recognize the films they come from, you’ve seen them, but on late night television when you weren’t giving them your full attention. Another detail she was careful about; the stills are never high drama. They come from quiet moments in the film, just before or after a major scene. It’s as though you know the film but can’t recall that particular instant.

Could a man have pulled off the same trick as Sherman? Well, it wouldn’t have had the same resonance. In 1978 the imagery of women carried far more weight than studies of masculinity. It was more closely analyzed, particularly by people who thought of masculinity as something to react against. The manly clichés were still in abundance too. John Wayne was having successive parts cut from his cancerous body but he was still technically alive and no one yet had any idea how far or how low Sylvester Stallone would take his comic book parody of the all American male. If Sherman’s work was parody, it was of a subject that hadn’t yet been exposed to it. The characters she played were essentially bit parts, supporting actresses, the hero’s girl, the one whose only significant contribution to the film was her looks.

 And another thing; Sherman realized that when it came to women, Hollywood had created dozens of stereotypes she could work off. When it came to men however it had been lazy. Forgetting types like the cowboy or the soldier, (Sherman wasn’t interested in the immediately obvious.) men were generally banally realized, strong or weak, meting out violence or taking it, morally upright or dissolute. Complex characters were rare and they tended to wear their complexity like giant tattoos on their foreheads. Besides, how could a photographer successfully parody something that was already satire anyway? A male photographer setting out on the same project would have soon found himself trying desperately to avoid the kind of clichés she could exploit because hers had been incidental in the first place.     

Looking through this collection of publicity photos and film stills we can see why Sherman could pull off something a man couldn’t. The women appear here as various types, the mother, the temptress etc. You don’t have to recognize the film to know the roles they fill. The same can’t be said of the men. What is really apparent is how often the men must describe themselves through violence. They are involved with forces beyond their control and spilling blood will usually be the only response they know. The women are different. They will survive, thanks to the virtue they were either born with or discovered halfway through the film, if not that, their native cunning. We get the feeling that by the end of the film most of the men will have met a sticky end. The women will get what they want. We get the same impression looking at Sherman’s photographs. The girl hitchhiking into the night will be picked up by a saviour who changes her life. The noise that alerts the insouciant librarian won’t affect her so much as she thinks. There’s danger and menace everywhere but this is a make believe world; everything will be fine.

Sherman made 69 film stills in the series and said that she stopped making them in 1980 when she ran out of clichés. 69 seems an arbitrary number; she could have surely come up with a few more, yet how many would a man have made?


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