through the lens of the muse @BertSternMadman by @shannahstar


it’s late = 22:36 (if one is familiar with the 24-hour clock as per the custom of europeans) in los angeles right now but we wanted to write before this evening fades in our head through dreams to come.

it’s been a Busy Day (and a very good one – our new life in los angeles is barely 3 months old but emerging from its chrysalis into something indeed beautiful, even if we don’t quite know as what, as yet).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwe just got back from seeing the documentary about Bert Stern, directed by Shannah Laumeister, which was playing at the Nuart (take sunset boulevard the opposite way away from hollywood towards the ocean and cut down just after the I-405 to santa monica).

the screening was at 19:30 but we stayed for the director’s Q&A (because we adore a director’s Q&A)


Bert Stern, as you may recall, took extraordinary photographs – and then disappeared into a hole of who-knows-what-demons (and the documentary does a good job of not-attempting-to-explain-the-inexplicable) – before re-emerging and re-building and re-establishing not just a Studio and a new body of work but a Life.

alas, not with any serenity or peace though, it seems.

full of dark questions and a troubled brow, Mr. Stern quotes Sartre’s famous line: “Hell is other people” and we know we’re not in for one of those 3rd act transformations into white linen flowing shirts with a house in Provence and chubby grandchildren squeezing fresh peach juice as the archivists keep the whole place afloat.

now to the creative force behind this documentary (brava, lady) – Shannah Laumeister – who is one of the only women we can think of (unless you know otherwise and do Tell so we can update this post) who is the Muse turned Director.

Shannah has appeared in front of Bert Stern’s camera (from a remarkably tender age) for more than twenty years and so it is extraordinary that she turned the tables on him for this, her first documentary.

may we introduce a little cultural theory (considering we did study it at London University – you may have guessed as much)?

in 1975, Laura Mulvey published an essay in Screen magazine which addressed the nature of the “male gaze” (the entire piece is here but we warn you it was 1975 and so mentions castration, patriarchy and Freud in the first page and is no less hard-hitting as it progresses).

our friends at wikipedia have pulled out a most useful precis here.

The “male gaze” in feminist theory

In her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Laura Mulvey introduced the second-wave feminist concept of “male gaze” as a feature of gender power asymmetry in film. The concept was present in earlier studies of the gaze, but it was Mulvey who brought it to the forefront. Mulvey stated that women were objectified in film because heterosexual men were in control of the camera. Hollywood films played to the models of voyeurism and scopophilia.[3] The concept has subsequently been influential in feminist film theory and media studies.[citation needed]

The male gaze[4] occurs when the camera puts the audience into the perspective of a heterosexual man. It may linger over the curves of a woman’s body, for instance.[5] The woman is usually displayed on two different levels: as an erotic object for both the characters within the film, as well as the spectator who is watching the film. The man emerges as the dominant power within the created film fantasy. The woman is passive to the active gaze from the man. This adds an element of ‘patriarchal‘ order and it is often seen in “illusionistic narrative film”.[6] Mulvey argues that, in mainstream cinema, the male gaze typically takes precedence over the female gaze, reflecting an underlying power asymmetry

we wrote our thesis (alas, before the interweb and so not published anywhere for which we are Most grateful as we were Young, naive and Very Opinionated in those days) on what could be construed as the “female gaze”.

we posited a notion about fractured narrative, subjective and more personal camera work and so on using the work of first independent American film director, Maya Deren (most notably her 1943 work – Meshes of the Afternoon) to illustrate what might be involved in a most specifically “female gaze”.

it is not that women make women’s pictures (necessarily) but that a documentary about the so-called “original Mad Man” if directed by a man would have been a squaring-off or a comparison, a lingering look (jealousy?) at the women who surrounded Bert Stern – it would have been one man pitched against another – that’s how it is (or was?) – men measure out their lives against other men.

Laura Mulvey argues that there is an obsessive gaze (with the man behind the camera) towards the subject who has no voice, no recourse – in fact we could quote Mr. James Woods who was at the screening this evening and said (not just to us, to the whole auditorium of guests):

this was a chilling look, for me, as a man, at how Hollywood still destroys women after objectifying them on screen.

(Mr. James Woods was talking about contemporary female stars and the way they appear to be treated in much the same way as dear Marilyn).

here’s the point (you knew there was one, eventually, non?)

Shannah Laumeister has no need to compare herself to Bert Stern – she is deeply curious about who this man was – is – imagined himself to be – what happened – the devastating effect on those around him – in other words – she is free to tell the Story as She sees it (because she is the director – someone else would have made different choices but the delicious fact is – it’s Her Film).

her camera work is intrusive at times, at others almost misty-on-the-lens – she is In the movie because she is part of the Story – it is not a hagiography – she does not embalm or bestow sainthood – she does not lighten the dark load that Mr. Stern still struggles under.

what are we trying to say?

here goes: only a female director could have made this documentary, in this way.

and that is Truly Exciting to see.

there are many stories to be told – and many storytellers to tell them – and the interweb and lighter cameras and digital (expensive film stock was definitely a hindrance to learning one’s trade without a trust fund – and so few – if any trust fund babies made a good movie) have made it Possible for us all to do so now – across the world – instantly – sharing in multiple languages across time zones that divide us.

the other very Exciting piece (for us – as this is our blog – but we’re So glad you visit us here and leave delicious little notes) is that Shannah is not just turning the camera on the man who had her in his Lens – she is turning the camera on Herself.


we rarely see women turning the camera on themselves to examine their own role in a Story (there are notable exceptions)

will you indulge us if we insert ourselves into the Story too?

you see who-we-are-in-RL is going through something of a transformation after Leaving Manhattan and moving-to-this-Other-Coast and we’ve moved from the being Terribly Excited stage of getting-a-green-card (sing it, Etta) and have entered the more thoughtful stage.

and so today we turned the lens on ourselves and took a self-portrait which Rather sums up how we feel – more grounded – more grown-up – and, well, ready to direct.

Screen shot 2013-04-19 at 10.35.21 PM

and Enormously inspired by Shannah Laumeister.

while very compassionate for Mr. Bert Stern who has had such an extraordinary impact on our culture but still lives tormented………..and yet with a deep abiding sense of mystery and mysticism that makes him almost magical and wistful.

as he says in the movie:

“I was just a kid who wanted to make out with Marilyn Monroe.” — Bert Stern

and Marilyn said no.

which is perhaps why he uses her image instead of his own on the place-where-the-tweets-go

Screen shot 2013-04-19 at 11.37.21 PM

which is rather heart-breaking when you think about it.

here’s something which is Rather delicious – this just in!

Screen shot 2013-04-19 at 11.42.45 PM



here’s the picture of which he (or his People) speak: Screen shot 2013-04-19 at 11.41.13 PMmultiple gazes on many souls.

a later update (isn’t the interweb the Best?!)

Screen shot 2013-04-21 at 2.30.13 PM

13 thoughts on “through the lens of the muse @BertSternMadman by @shannahstar

  1. Great blog re Shannah Laumeister’s film–Bert Stern Original Mad Man. Very brave, courageous work by SL–as u point out–it’s her film, her voice. Thank god she had the tenacity and vision to bring her “female gaze” to us in this remarkable work–which is more than what usually goes for a documentary. John Stout

      1. By the way, do you know the work of our Jane Campion. Just watching some of her series At the Top of the Lake. Actually, it became too intense for me; had to stop watching.

  2. Wow. *kind of speechless*
    *stil taking it all in*
    Will just additionally cough out that me loves the new photo–yes grounded and intellect shining through without pretension…

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