Screening Musidora: Inscribing Indeterminacy in Film History
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Camera Obscura 16.3 (2001) 59-81



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Screening Musidora:
Inscribing Indeterminacy in Film History

Vicki Callahan

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The opening title cards of La terre des taureaux (France, 1924), a film directed by the French silent film actress Musidora, pose a question directly to the audience: "Readers, Friends, and Spectators, why isn't life as good as a novel?" 1 This question, which initiates a playful engagement with the boundaries of fiction, autobiography, and documentary throughout the film, can be seen as an ongoing preoccupation of Musidora's career. From her early film roles in the crime serials of Louis Feuillade, Les vampires(France, 1915-16) and Judex (France, 1916), through her diverse performances on stage and screen--including ten films that she directed, sadly only two of which, Soleil et ombre (dir. Musidora and Jacques Lasseyne, 1922) and La terre des taureaux, are known still to exist today 2 --to an incredibly prolific writing career (including film scenarios, plays, children's stories complete with her illustrations, songs, and even a history of the cinema), Musidora was someone extremely attentive both to her public persona and her ability to construct the narrative(s) that surrounded this persona. The length and breadth of Musidora's career and, indeed, her almost mythic status in French cinema can be traced not exclusively [End Page 59] to the black-leotard-clad icon of Irma Vep (Musidora's character from Feuillade's Les vampires), but also to this quite explicit act of "writing" a life "as good as a novel."

Moreover, this process of "writing" or inscribing is best not read as a linear history. That is to say, it is not simply the case that Musidora becomes a "star" of French cinema and French cultural history because of Les vampires (and then turns to her own independent projects), but rather that the traces of her own authorial marks both pre- and postdate her work with the Feuillade/ Gaumont troupe. Thus, as film historians and film theorists begin to reassemble the narrative(s) of Musidora's career on the basis of these traces, what we discern about Irma Vep/Musidora takes on a life that rewrites our understanding of the Feuillade serial and is worthy of life in a novel, or perhaps more to the point, in the cinema. More specifically, it is the special relationship between the very openness of the cinematic image, particularly in the silent era, that is represented, or, perhaps more accurately, embodied in Irma Vep's black bodysuit, and Musidora's inscription within that openness that produces her unique value and her ongoing fascination as a cinematic icon. I propose in this essay why I believe Musidora is important to film history, how her image might become the site for an alternative writing of film history based on indeterminacy, and how, to paraphrase Musidora, we might write "a history worthy of life in the cinema."

It is obvious that the last twenty years of film studies have seen an explosion in the interest and complexity of film history. The separate works of Noël Burch and Tom Gunning were influential in sketching the parameters of early cinema as an autonomous and alternative form (the "primitive" or the "cinema of attractions" era as distinct from the classical era) and in moving early film history away from excessively teleological and biographical accounts (for instance, of the great male pioneers of cinema: Thomas Edison, Edwin S. Porter, D. W. Griffith). In both cases, the models proposed by Burch and Gunning, while in many ways quite different, were absolutely critical to shaping an understanding of history that was attentive to formal and theoretical concerns. 3 Nonetheless, despite the groundbreaking contributions [End Page 60] of these scholars, it is not clear that certain linear or hagiographic strains of film history have been entirely left behind.

The historical model of "attractions" outlined by Gunning, which currently dominates our understanding of early film, emphasizes the presentational (vs. representational) and nonnarrative qualities of early film. And while Gunning's analysis has the advantage of removing the cinema from an essentialist, controlling, and...