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Art and Literature

Gender and soliloquy: analyzing the internal lives of women on screen

head shot of Oeler

Karla Oeler

How can cinema – a fundamentally visual and auditory medium – convey interiority? This was the question at the heart of the Clayman Institute faculty research fellows talk given last month by Karla Oeler, associate professor of film and media studies at Stanford University. Throughout her talk, Oeler gave a sneak peek of her upcoming book, The Surface of Things: Cinema and the Devices of Interiority. She investigated the ways films depict the act of thinking that the thinker does not share. This effort proves particularly challenging when the on-screen thinker is a woman, given cinema’s historical fixation with women’s surface appearance and patriarchal assumptions about women’s agency and subjectivity. 

According to Oeler, since the silent era, film critics have claimed soliloquy for the cinema, arguing that such cinematic techniques as the close-up and the point-of-view sequence fulfill soliloquy’s function—to show characters talking with themselves without expressing their thoughts to another character.  In this sense, film adopts a device that initially emerged in literature and theater. Yet, Oeler argued, early filmmakers and theorists like Béla Balázs believed that film was better suited for internalizing than other media. To convey interiority, films paradoxically used close-up shots of the face – that is, a visual surface – to convey the thoughts happening below that very surface.

To explore these contradictions, Oeler analyzed and interpreted two differing works of art by women artists, each of which grapples with female interiority on screen. The first, by Candice Breitz, is titled The Soliloquy Trilogy (2000). In the work, Breitz removes the reverse shots from the movies Dirty Harry, Witches of Eastwick, and Basic Instinct, instead only including shots of the respective main characters. Oeler noted that the new version of Basic Instinct, featuring only shots of Sharon Stone, is reduced to a mere seven and a half minutes of film. On one hand, Oeler argued, the new version of the movie becomes close to the literal meaning of “soliloquy”: a character talking alone on screen. On the other hand, the lines spoken by Stone are still communicated to others, making the “soliloquy” title somewhat ironic. According to Oeler, the only interiority truly on display in the art is Breitz’s own: Despite the mechanical nature of the re-edited film, the new choices reveal something of Breitz’s own subjectivity.

Oeler also explored a second work of art, this one by Iranian visual artist Shirin Neshat, titled Soliloquy (1999). In her piece, Neshat appears on two massive screens that face each other. On the right screen, she shows herself moving through various locations in New York State; on the left, she appears in Mardin, Turkey. At various points in the installation, each visual of herself stops, seemingly to contemplate the other one. According to Oeler, Neshat invented a powerful new way of conveying distanced self-reflection. By having two images of Neshat looking at each other from two different locations, the work of art presents a subjective reflection on her multiple senses of identity. For Oeler, this film exceeds soliloquy, since Neshat both makes the soliloquy and appears in it. 

Taken together, Oeler’s analyses reveal the thought-provoking ways that these women artists have moved beyond depictions of the woman as object on screen, as well as the differing approaches to filmic interiority. Through varied approaches, Oeler argues, women have inventively brought their own interiorities to bear on a fundamentally visual medium.