Tag Archives: The House of Science: A Museum of False Facts

Wide Angle Vol. 14: Feminist Polemics through Film Poetry by Marilyn Fabe / The House of Science

Wide Angle Volume 14, published in 1992. The House of Science: Museum of False Facts / Feminist Polemics through Film Poetry by Marilyn Fabe.

In The House of Science:A Museum of False Facts, Lynne Sachs exposes the edifice of scientific “facts” with which the male-dominated disciplines of science and medicine have constructed an image of what a woman is. Through-out the 30-minute film, Sachs traces the unfortunate interface between women and science, a terrain in which men are supposed to have all the knowledge, defining and mapping out women as their territory, while women are alienated from their own bodies. 

This synopsis of the film’s thesis doesn’t begin to convey the wit, complexity and visual brilliance with which Sachs approaches her subject. Indeed, I would argue that she achieves in this film what Sergei Eisenstein sought through intellectual montage: “to restore to the intellectual process its fire and passion … to give back to emasculated theoretical formulas the rich exuberance of life-felt forms.” Through associative montage, superimposed collage, and sound in counterpoint to image, she launches an attack on the presumed objectivity of western science, and exposes the limitations of verbal language in expressing “the truth.” Sachs does this by replacing the language of logic and science with a complex film poetry. The House of Science is a passionate feminist film that makes its point through poetry rather than polemics. 

Even as Sachs depicts the house of science into which women have been locked, she subtly and subversively dismantles it-or, in a metaphor more appropriate to the film’s denouement, burns it down. The manner in which the first sequence works suggests the structure of the film as a whole. Before the titles appear, Sachs counterpoints found footage of a man in a white jacket-a Doctor with a capital 0-escorting a woman into a glass booth. This image is accompanied by a voiceover of a woman describ- ing the cold, perfunctory manner in which she was treated during her pregnancy by her gynecologist. Here the disparate sound and image tracks uncannily mesh, the glass booth becoming a symbol of the sterile House of Sci- ence in which women have been enclosed, objectified and observed. At the same time, the voice of the woman reflecting on her pregnancy reminds us that everyone’s original dwelling is the woman’s body. In a flash of recognition an idea bursts forth: because men come from a mysterious house (the womb), they have a compulsive

need to put women back into one (the doctor leading the woman into the glass booth). The sadistic implications of this are played out associatively when the same doctor detonates a fuse which causes a model of a house to burst into flames. Sachs adds her own heat (her anger) to this image by tinting the black and white image of the burning house with flashes of orange. 

This foregrounding of the filmmaker’s feelings, superim- posed in color on the black and white image, resonates suggestively with the pregnant woman’s description of her gynecologist: “He always struck me as short, cold and with glasses and he may not look like that at all.” At issue here is the questioning of any kind of objective reality. Unlike the authoritarian certainty with which men speak throughout the film, this woman acknowledges how feelings filter our perceptions of reality. 

Sachs exposes the hidden feeling behind the language of science by quoting one Lombroso, a 19th century  “expert” on criminality in women, who pontificates on the “irrefutable physical signs of a born thief” in a nine-year- old girl. The ignorance, prejudice and insanity of Lombrasso’s words, which appear irr subtitles, are rendered even more ridiculous because they are read on the soundtrack by a female child who mangles the text by stumbling over the pronunciation of the words. On the image track is an exuberant nine-year-old girl in a Batman costume, a superhero in her resistance to the misogynist science of men. The image of the little girl changes to one of a dancing woman, who, unlike the child, is not free but contained in a crudely chalk-drawn frame of a house, reminding us of how adult women lose the liberty of girlhood only to be confined in the constrictive House of Science. 

Sachs places frames around men as well, play- fully asserting the power of the woman artist to turn the tables. In one instance a man stands before a picture frame lecturing on anatomy. As he discusses the framework of the body, he himself appears in a frame, and the prurience underlying his pompous abstractions is exposed when the picture in the frame within a frame turns into a nude woman.

As the film progresses, Sachs increasingly presents images of women defining themselves. Three adult women, who earlier had dutifully mouthed Lombrasso’s certainty that female thieves and “above all prostitutes” have a cranial capacity inferior to that of “moral women,” begin to speak for themselves. For example, a woman art critic offers insight into why the pubic hair was removed from Renaissance representations of Venuses: ”fhe more the visual image can be disarmed the better the male artist feels.” And the filmmaker’s journal entry expresses the exhilaration and power of a woman with a speculum looking into herself.

Yet Sachs offers no smug sense of victory for women. The latter images in the film, like those at the beginning, are riddled with ambiguity. The woman with the speculum lives in dread of the cancer she might find now that she has the power to examine herself. And little girls, who through- out the film resist the confinements of their culture, are given the gaze-they become spectators in movie houses-only to witness hauntingly beautiful images of graceful south sea island women spoiled by a sexist and racist voice-of-god commentary.

Although Sachs does not posit any material or transcen- dent victory for women, her film does offer a model of witty, exuberant, sensual and subversive film language that questions and subverts the patriarchal structures of thought and representation that for centuries have impris- oned women. Thus, at the end of the film the blazing house reappears, but now it takes on a new meaning: the fire that bursts forth and collapses the walls of the house becomes a powerful metaphor for the incendiary power of the woman poet/polemicist to destroy from within the oppressive structure of the House of Science. 

Marilyn Fabe teaches Film Studies and Women’s Studies At the UniversityofCalifornia-Berkeley. She is The Co-author Against theClock:Career Women Speak on the Choice to Have Children (RandomHouse, 1979). 

Film & Doba / THE HOUSE OF SCIENCE Script

Images from Film & Doba 1991, text by Stanislav Ulver.

“In Film a Doba, Stanislav Ulver started publishing texts about animated films in the early eighties. In 1989, he became a member of the editorial staff and four years later the editor-in-chief. During his tenure, Film a Doba was one of the few periodicals that consistently reflected non-fiction, animated and experimental cinematography. In addition to professional articles, Ulver has published countless reviews, festival reports, interviews and translations here. His texts were also published in Illumination , Analogon , ASIFA News and a number of domestic and foreign catalogs.

He worked as a teacher at FAMU, where he taught the history of animated and avant-garde film and led seminars on film aesthetics and media criticism. He was the editor of the anthologies Film and Time: 1962–1970 (1997), Light in Us. Experimental Film (2003) and Animation and the Time 1955–2000 (2004). Editorially prepared the release of the screenplay by Marketa Lazarová (1998). In 1991, his monograph Western Film Avant-Garde was published.

On May 14 2022, film theoretician, columnist, educator and former editor-in-chief of Film and Time Stanislav Ulver passed away. Honor his memory!” Film a Doba

The House of Science: A Museum of False Facts

“The House of Science: a museum of false facts”
30 min., color, sound, 1991

“Offering a new feminized film form, this piece explores both art and science’s representation of women, combining home movies, personal remembrances, staged scenes and found footage into an intricate visual and aural college. A girl’s sometimes difficult coming of age rituals are recast into a potent web for affirmation and growth.” (SF Cinematheque)

“A disturbing discovery and a remarkable exposition.  The film demonstrates Sachs’ natural gifts as an autobiographer, a philosopher and a true artist.” (Melbourne Film Festival)

“The film takes off on a visual and aural collage…combining the theoretical issues of feminism with the discrete and personal remembrances of childhood.”  ( San Francisco Bay Guardian)

“Throughout ‘The House of Science’ an image of a woman, her brain revealed, is a leitmotif.  It suggests that the mind/body split so characteristic of Western thought is particularly troubling for women, who may feel themselves moving between the territories of the film’s title –house, science, and museum, or private, public and idealized space — without wholly inhabiting any of them.  This film explores society’s representation and conceptualization of women through home movies, personal reminiscences, staged scenes, found footage and voice.  Sachs’ personal memories recall the sense of her body being divided, whether into sexual and functional territories, or ‘the body of the body’ and ‘the body of the mind.'” (Kathy Geritz, Pacific Film Archives)

Charlotte Film Festival, First Prize Experimental; Atlanta Film Festival, Honorable Mention Experimental; International Audiovisual Experimental Festival,  Arnheim, Netherlands; Black Maria Film Fest, Juror’s Award; Hallwalls Center for the Arts, Buffalo, NY; Humbolt Film Festival, Teffen Filter Award; Museum of Modern Art, Cineprobe; Portland Museum of Art, “Icons, Rebels and Visionaries”; Athens Film Festival, Experimental Prize; Oberhausen  Short Film Festival, Germany; Utah Film Festival, First Prize Short Film.

For inquiries about rentals or purchases please contact Canyon Cinema or the Film-makers’ Cooperative. And for international bookings, please contact Kino Rebelde


RECLAIMING WOMANHOOD – ON LYNNE SACHS’ ‘THE HOUSE OF SCIENCE’

Cinea Berlin
By Tijana Perović 
July 1, 2020 
https://cinea.be/reclaiming-womanhood-on-lynne-sachs-the-house-of-science/

In The House of Science: A Museum of False Facts (1991), Lynne Sachs curates a moving-image exhibition of womanhood, carefully sampling artifacts from the past (fabricated truths built to sustain male dominancy), intertwined with empirical artifacts of her own history (personal truths and memories). Through the power of visual and aural association, several domains of the exhibit simultaneously unfold in front of us: the personal, the public and the historical. Sachs drifts between these domains smoothly until a whole network of information is gently bestowed upon us. We start with the image of a doctor guiding a woman into a glass booth, followed by him setting a model house on fire, and the sound of Sachs’ voice, telling us about her experience of being examined by an apathetic gynecologist while pregnant. The image of the detached male doctor lingers with us for the whole length of the movie, along with his perverse power over a female body, over her right to “bare armor”—as in, contraception—and over her right to give birth. Together with Sachs, we wince at the story of her obtaining a contraceptive diaphragm. The doctor has no issue sending her off into battle with her new armor and zero instructions on how to do it. “I leave his office fully equipped, protected, and completely incapable of placing that plastic sheath over my cervix. Where is my cervix?” Next, we see a naked woman rolling up and down a sand dune unceasingly.

Another moment sat with me throughout the movie, that of a little girl. A little girl learning to read, stumbling through the grotesque words of Dr. Cesare Lombroso, naively walking us through his diagnosis of a nine-year-old female, a “born thief”. Sachs explores the concept of criminal atavism by juxtaposing her daughter’s voice with the delusional criminalization of women based on their physical appearance. By pairing images of female child-like playfulness and purity with delusional artifacts of the late 19th century, she amplifies the gap between the male study of women and women themselves. She flows between the public, mainstream, male rationale and the private, subjective female counter-experience. We are left with the uncomfortable ambiguity of child-like giggles of lightness and historical screams of darkness.

At the core of Sachs’ exhibit lies her most intimate gaze upon womanhood. It is articulated into unspoken words on the screen:

“I am two bodies—the body of the body and the body of the mind. The body of the body was flaccid and forgotten. This was the body that was wet with dirty liquids, holes that wouldn’t close, full of smells and curdled milk.” (We hear pencil scratches.)

The body of the body of a woman is biologically destined to be softer and therefore more fluid. All this fluidity, open space, holes, smells are often psychologically coupled with shame. Sachs’ words here represent the experience of most girls becoming women. This body of ours is too visceral for both us and the world to accept.

“The body of the body moves in cycles, and with every repetition there is a sensation of pain. The arrival of the body of the body forces the body of the mind to take notice, begrudgingly so. With legs crossed, the blood is caught just before it crosses the border into the public domain” (We hear a person peeing and a loud flushing of the toilet.)

Not only is the body of the body full of liquids and smells, but they threaten to spill over into the public domain. Our bodies and all their products are trained to be confined.

“Filled with infectious, infected liquids, we hold in the blood, the water, the sneeze, the wax, the hair, the pus, the breath. All that is ours to let go, to release onto this earth is held in, contained. I am the cauldron of dangerous substances.”

To defeat this imposed belief system of male ideas which we were fed throughout our lives is to inspect and observe your body for yourself. It takes a lot of courage to look into your own body with curiosity, rather than shame.

“I trace a path across my chest, searching for surprises I’d rather not find, knots in the fabric.”

Women are being re-educated to examine themselves instead of being examined by the cold metal-handed gynecologist. However, self-examination carries a burden of unforeseen surprises. Releasing our juices into the public, into the mainstream. Bravely facing the knots in the fabric as early signs of our bodies decaying.

“Undressed, we read our bodies like a history. Scars, muscles, curves of the spine. We look at ourselves from within. Collect our own data, create our own science. Begin to define.”

Built from the inside out, this new laboratory pushes against the walls of the old structure. An incendiary effect, but not arson.

When we are brave enough to look into the stretch marks, the scars, the wobbles, the curves, we own our space, our fluids and our bones. We collect and process our data, introduce new terminology. We allow for the soft to be malleable, buoyant, rather than flaccid and weak. We allow for differences. We allow for change. We allow for expression to re-place suppression. We become safely vulnerable instead of avoidant or anxious. We spit our words and meanings out instead of swallowing them.

In between the personal and the public domain lie Sachs’ women. These are real, physical women, subjects of anatomical studies, as well as women in paintings, subjects of the male painter’s gaze. The first, forced silent, the latter, painted static, confined to a space in history, “to be taken”. We witness a female artist looking at men looking at women.

Despite the immanently observational, passive and saddening tone of the movie, there is a promise in this exhibit. A promise that by carefully unfolding and studying the history of womanhood, one is already shaking the habitual. Sachs’ voice is not passive at all, it is rather filled with precisely focused meditative anger, an eloquent scream for justice, live from the gynecologist’s office, calling for help and cooperation.

To aid and support this novel conception of womanhood, we seek out new imagery, new viewpoints, new forms. Sachs’ filmography is a great start. The House of Science shifted my gaze to earlier works of art, predating celluloid. I searched for an alternative museum of womanhood. In particular, the Viennese modernist painters Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka stood out as engaging with the representation of women: as neither virgins nor whores, allowing their female subjects to escape this demeaning cage. They let their subjects move around freely, be comfortable, take up space, lie down wrapped up in themselves. Schiele went one step further: painting anger and anxiety on the faces of his subjects. “By exploring such subjects, the three artists simultaneously exhumed their own sexuality: their fears, sorrows, hopes, and ecstasies…their women do not necessarily submit passively to the male artistic gaze. They look back and demand to be understood on their own terms.”1 These were not the only attempts by men to redefine womanhood in a feminist way. However, the others were often buried and forgotten, most likely because they were single, isolated sprouts of change.

Although revolutionary, the idea that cooperation could displace competition has certainly taken root lately. This idea insinuates that equality is actually a lot more functional and productive for all parties involved. A very timely example would be the evolution of a virus (or a random constituted body of persons, empowered by the state, with a specific aim, e.g. to enforce the law). If a virus were to survive, it would have to evolve in a cooperative manner with its host. Eventually, many highly infectious and pathogenic viruses have decreased their pathogenicity in order to keep their hosts alive. Some have even been completely eradicated over time. This gives me hope, both for us as a species and us as women. However, to put this into practice, we need both the unspoken voices to be heard and the destructive, competitive voices to fade out. It would have to be a cooperative effort.

EINDNOTEN

  1.  Jane Kallir, ‘Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka – Men Looking at Women Looking at Men’, p. 59, in: Agnes Husslein-Arco Jane Kallir and Alfred Weidinger, The Women of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka, 2015 

    https://cinea.be/reclaiming-womanhood-on-lynne-sachs-the-house-of-science/