Guest post by Joan Hawkins, Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at Indiana University.
Valie Export (1940-) is a radical feminist Austrian artist and filmmaker. How radical? Radical enough to take a popular brand of cigarettes, Export, as her last name. She liked the design of the cigarettes, she told Gary Indiana, and she liked the idea of exporting herself from association to her father and ex-husband. “It was a style I could use,” she said.
Export was not the only woman or artist of her generation looking for style she could use. In the ’60s and ’70s, she explained, Austrian feminists had to come to grips not only with patriarchal culture, but with the fact that the Austro-Germanic patriarchal culture derived heavily from Nazi ideology. And like their radical colleagues, the Vienna Actionists, and the filmmakers of the New German Film Movement (Fassbinder, Herzog) they had to deal with the guilt they felt over their parents’ complacency within the Nazi regime. Austrian feminists were anything but complacent. They used the female body, Export says, generally their own, “as a bearer of signs and symbols” that could draw attention to the way “power relations inherent in media representations inscribe women’s bodies.” In an early performance piece, for example, Export entered an art cinema in Munich, wearing crotchless pants, and walked around the audience with her exposed genitalia at eye level. Like the Surrealist and Dada women artists who preceded her, Export was provocative and fierce. Her artistic work includes video installations, body performances, expanded cinema, computer animation, photography, sculptures and publications covering contemporary arts.
She began making films in 1968, and Invisible Adversaries (Unsichtbare Gegner, 1976; U.S. release, 1980) is her first major release. Written and directed by her, the film is a strong feminist film wrapped in some of the genre conventions of sci-fi. I say some of the conventions because if you approach the film as a typical alien invasion film, you will be disappointed. Set in mid-20th century Vienna, the film involves a photographer, Anna, who discovers that extraterrestrial beings are colonizing people’s minds, raising the quotient of human aggression. That’s the sci-fi plot. But the world careening toward destruction parallels her own disintegrating romantic relationship and her increasingly fragile grasp of the real. Are aliens causing her schizophrenia? Or is it just a coincidence that she begins seeing otherwise at the same time they invade?
“Invisible Adversaries requires patience,” one viewer wrote, “but it’s worth it. Only after I realized that the box cover was wrong (it’s NOT an alien invasion movie) did I begin to see it as the moving story of a woman who sees the collapse of her intimate relationship in everything around her — the emptiness of the people she sees, the fighting in the world at large. She’s also a photographer, and what she does as an artist is mirrored by the filmic technique itself — the film is full of doubling, re-takes, delays, and some stunning images (in one sequence shown as if it were being projected over her bed as she’s sleeping, she walks across the town in ice skates). It’s not always an easy movie to take: the lighting seems deliberately un-beautiful, and you won’t escape without some bracing intimate moments. It is aesthetically distinctly un-French in its ugliness, but marvelous all the same.”
It is perhaps telling that the Wikipedia entry for the film is brief, with a majority of the text devoted to “critical reception.” And that has been uniformly outstanding. When it was released in the U.S., film critic J Hoberman included it in his list of the year’s ten best films. And in 1998, he wrote that it was “one of the richest avant-garde features of the 1970s.” Amy Taubin, who regularly writes about avant-garde cinema, said the film “makes you reconsider what you and everyone else is doing — in life and in art.”
Certainly it asks us to reconsider or re-evaluate our stake in women as psychological ciphers for the state of the world around us. Anna’s schizophrenia, Artforum (November, 1980) notes, “is reflected in the juxtapositions of long movie camera takes with violently edited montages: private with public spaces; black & white with colour, still photographs with video, earsplitting sounds with disruptive camera angles. Anna uses her body like a map; after a devastating quarrel with her lover, she paints red stitches on herself. Watching their scenes together, we realize how seldom, if ever before, the details of sexual intimacy have been shown in film from the point of view from a woman. Export privileges rupture over unity and never settles for one-dimensional solutions.”
The film was presented for the first time at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1977, and it won a Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival. It has also been a staple offering on feminist filmmaking syllabi since the 1980s.
Joan Hawkins is an Associate Professor in Cinema and Media Studies at Indiana University. She is best known as the author of Cutting Edge: Art Horror and the Horrific Avant-garde, and has written extensively on genre, feminism, and experimental cinema. She regularly teaches classes on women directors. She is currently editing an anthology on the radical aesthetics of 1968.