Elevate Difference

Cupboards of Curiosity: Women, Recollection, and Film History

Caught between the somewhat clichéd “fleeting moment of stardom” and the somewhat fatalistic blow of having images captured on film for what could be an eternity or lost to everyone forever, to be a celebrity means cultivating and wearing a Janus-faced mask. In Cupboards of Curiousity, Amelie Hastie reads the various images in the montage that is the female celebrity—illuminating how they produce forms of knowledge in the realm of the cultural imaginary, thus achieving agency in unlikely and unusual ways. Using the work of noted philosophes Benjamin and Bachelard, film theorists Laura Mulvey and Mary Ann Doane, cultural historians Susan Stewart and Maya Deren, and other erudite samplings of intellectual powerhouses from the disciplinary stables, Hastie offers a nuanced reading of “memory” and “collecting” to inform her inquiry and assertions. Though clearly written for an academic audience seeking a “geneaology” of sorts, all readers will find themselves captivated by the historical detail and optimistic exegesis Hastie delivers in each chapter.

Feminists in the academy will laud the way Hastie consciously avoids the traps that appear with the language of psychoanalysis often used to read both cinematic and extra-cinematic activities of these women. When discussing the cultural economy that sustained the interest in, and also produced the possibility of success for, silent film star Colleen Moore’s dollhouse, Hastie didn’t attempt to collapse the significance of the interest or activity into a fetish, disorder or symptom of her womanhood or her particular childhood and adolescent circumstances. Nor does she rely on these terms to explain the interest in the traveling object or in her role as “woman” in the cinema.

Instead, as in her reading of Alice Guy Blanché’s autobiography, Louise Brooks’ short essays and Zazu Pitts candy cookbook, she discusses in great length how these stars and star-makers actively sought out ways to explore the dimensions of their cultural (and yes, economic) capital. Like a good film historian, she looks at both the social conditions that gave the films and their stars success and the specific knowledge produced by each individual film within the context of the star’s complete oeuvre. Louise Brook’s Pandora’s Box only makes sense when read against the documentary Lulu in Berlin—and this is a difficult task, given our proclivity to simultaneously collapse the images we see into an oblivion of “Personality.” And while I wish Hastie would have spent more time discussing more controversial contemporary film/music/socialite film stars (who doesn’t approve of Turlington’s yoga?), I anticipate another volume that attempts to read the current onslaught of female “purveyor of goods” personas during an age when the politics of fashion, beauty and feminism are the complicated questions du jour.

Written by: Joanne Molina, April 8th 2007