The Remix That Knew Too Much? On REBECCA, Retrospectatorship and the Making of RITES OF PASSAGE

Catherine Grant

The Cine-Files, issue 7 (fall 2014)

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…[1]

[A]n uncanny feeling keeps a lesbian gaze focused on Hollywood movies, searching for women in the shadows. It invites us to re-encounter something we’ve seen before but didn’t yet know what the encounter would mean to us.[2]

[S]ensuous methodologies seem to me to be eminently suited to the epistemology and hermeneutics […] of déjà-viewing.[3]


On December 15, 2013, Joan Fontaine died. She had reached the very grand old age of 96, so this news shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. But it knocked me sideways. (I originally wrote this last sentence unselfconsciously, innocently, but, as you will see, knocking and its cognate concepts figure rather strongly in the reflection that follows.)

Not only was Fontaine one of my favorite actors, but I was in the middle of making an audiovisual essay about her performance as the unnamed, or inferentially named protagonist (the second Mrs. de Winter) of Rebecca, Hitchcock and Selznick’s 1940 screen adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel. I had loved this film since watching it on television in my teens. For some (otherwise unaccountable) reason, a few months earlier, I had wanted to revisit it and had begun work by importing digitized footage from the entire film into my iMovie-editing program.

By playing with Rebecca there, and in particular by experimenting with the frame rate of the thumbnail images generated in the video “event” window in order to examine patterns of recurrence in the film, I had really been struck by the seemingly vast number of occasions on which Fontaine’s character goes through doorways or traverses other thresholds. My digital re-visualization of the film’s paradigmatic organization around liminality and crossings immediately recalled some of the key feminist scholarship on this film as a gothic melodrama, one particularly engaged with uncanny spaces, that I had set as class reading when I taught Rebecca on a feminist film studies Masters course in the mid 1990s. For instance, Tania Modleski, author of one of the most compelling of those studies, had written memorably of the heroine’s “bewildered wanderings through the labyrinthine mansion.”[4]

Propelled by this memory, I began to amass instances of Fontaine’s threshold crossings in my iMovie timeline, stringing them together in the order in which they appear in the film, for the purposes of composing the kind of videographic assemblage that I had made about the ten edits in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope two years earlier (this audiovisual study had likewise been underpinned by curious memories of reading film theoretical texts).[5] I believe my Rebecca editing project also reflected my recent—very enthusiastic—viewing of Kristall (Mirror; Matthias Müller and Christoph Girardet, 2006), a fifteen minute long artists’ film which sensuously re-filmed then compiled numerous mirror scenes taken from a variety of cinematic melodramas.[6] With my latest research project, however, I got bogged down in the process of collecting the very abundant raw material. Eventually the editing came to a stop and my emerging compilation languished for a while in digital limbo.

It was the news of Fontaine’s death that gave me the (tributary)[7] energy to complete the work. I continued gathering and sequencing excerpts until I believed that I had accumulated them all; I applied a high contrast filter to remove the (to me) inert, washed out feeling of the degraded digital image;[8] and, for the video’s soundtrack, I muted the film’s original audio, then added a re-recording[9] of the musical segment that Rebecca’s composer Franz Waxman had written for the “Rebecca’s Room” scene in the film. I re-edited the clips so that the compilation sequence lasted for the entire seven minutes and twenty-one seconds length of Waxman’s “uncanny orchestral haze”[10] and I was thrilled by some of the audiovisual and semantic correspondences and rhythms that were generated as a result of these new juxtapositions. But I still felt that the remix lacked something.

It was at this point that I had the idea to add a further layer to the video, what I thought of as a kind of punctuation: the placement of an at times booming, percussive sound effect to mark, or underscore, what I estimated were the precise moments when the thresholds on view were actually crossed by the film’s protagonist. This idea (I thought) and the sound itself were taken from the “Rebecca’s Room” sequence: from the point in the film’s actual audio track when a gong hit underscores the Fontaine character’s entry into the room (at 1:04:30, precisely, in Rebecca’s running time). But as I copied and overlaid the gong sound repeatedly throughout my video, on each occasion I adapted its relative volume, playing speed or duration, and applied varying audio effect filters (mostly, to decrease the treble and hiss, or to increase the amounts of bass and reverberation). In this way, even more dramatic and sensual emphases emerged.

When I watch Rites of Passage now, these final transformative effects (as well as my video’s title) recall the “thundering thumps”[11] of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” (1913).[12] This orchestral work was the first piece of really “challenging” classical music with which I had ever been deeply engaged. Indeed, I was obsessed with it from my mid teens onwards, following a precocious (though durable) passion for the musical impressionism of Debussy (the latter’s music, at least, was also a clear influence on Waxman’s score).[13] This was roughly the same period when I first saw Rebecca, which, despite its much more mainstream generic framing, was one of the first “challenging” or complex examples of cinema that I had noticed as such.[14] Both these cultural artefacts, then, were ones I had an exquisite sense of not fully understanding, of being beyond my cognitive grasp in some ways. At that point, they became associated with a kind of withholding that only served to heighten their appeal and fascination for me.

But one further memory, or epistemophilic connection, figures in this story, too. In the credits to my video, following my memorial note to Joan Fontaine, I felt moved to acknowledge the inspiration of Patricia White’s scholarly work. By this, primarily, I meant her 1991 essay “Female Spectator, Lesbian Specter: The Haunting,” which first appeared in Diana Fuss’s pioneering collection Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories (the essay was subsequently included in White’s own book UnInvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability).[15] I had pored over Fuss’s volume, as soon as it was published, in a more or less successful attempt to “get to grips” with the thrilling (and also somewhat withholding) complexities of queer theory.[16]

As much as I (still) loved White’s essay (it is, quite possibly, my favorite film studies text), I was curious, afterwards, about my choice of credit: the scholarly acknowledgment for this particular video should have been awarded, at least additionally, to some other much loved writing on Rebecca that I had used in my 1990s class reading: for example, Modleski’s 1988 book on Hitchcock’s films The Women Who Knew Too Much.[17] One of Modleski’s chapters focuses particularly on uncanny space in Rebecca and on the protagonist’s physical and psychological passage from girlish immaturity to married womanhood – the “passage” most obviously conveyed, at an “informational” level of meaning, as well as at a symbolic level, by my video (which does operate, in this last respect, as a microcosm of the film as a whole). White writes very compellingly indeed about Hitchcock’s 1940 film in her “Female Spectator, Lesbian Specter” chapter, but her discussion of gothic space (and spectrality) is much more focused, as her work’s subtitle indicates, on a detailed analysis of Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963). What White accounts for especially brilliantly in her work, though, are my, her and others’ cinematic experiences as lesbian spectators. She is always interested in how queer associated films, like Rebecca, “might not only speak to, touch, or move already-formed identities, […] they might play a part in their formation and their ‘becoming’,” as Katharina Lindner neatly summarizes it while deploying White’s insights for a queer phenomenological engagement with the cinema.[18]

I first read Modleski, then White’s work, on Rebecca in 1991 and I may have started to re-watch the film then, too, or very soon after, having purchased a VHS copy. That same year, I had begun an academic job in a new city and despite having come out some four years earlier, I didn’t really feel confident about mentioning my sexuality to very many people. I also had begun to teach and seriously research cinema for the first time, and so the films, as well as the feminist and emerging queer film-theoretical texts, to which I was drawn perhaps became an over-determined (and initially private) place where my newly fragile lesbian identity could be “representable,” a concept Freud uses, as White writes, “when talking about how the latent content of dreams evades internal censors – concepts must find sensual, pictorial form to be capable of being represented.”[19]

White links “lesbian representability” directly to Rebecca:

Take a film such as Rebecca [Alfred Hitchcock, 1940] whose script the Production Code Administration actually did scrutinize for lesbian “inferences” […]. It’s also a good example of the movies as “archive” […] because it condenses a number of strategies of representatibility. [20]

But she also links it to her key arguments about feminist film theory and what she saw as the latter’s inability to account fully for the “lesbian dimensions” of the women’s film (she mentions Modleski’s writing on Rebecca specifically in this regard):

In feminist film theory, it sometimes seemed as if the – obviously anti-intuitive and counter-productive – insistence on the impossibility of female spectatorship was defensive. […] I go so far as to link its rhetorical traces with the “defense against homosexuality” Freud argues is behind paranoia, the defense that provides some of the anxious and alluring atmosphere of the films I’ve […] mentioned. [21]

The Freudian text on the defense against homosexuality to which White alludes is “A Case of Paranoia Running Counter to the Psycho-Analytic Theory of the Disease” (1915), which I had sought out and read avidly, again as a teenager, in a rather self-interested and certainly very private search to find out as much as I could about the “symptoms” of lesbianism from which I thought I might be “suffering”.[22] It is the psychoanalytic case study set out in this text, in which a knocking sound, reportedly heard by his young female patient, is the symptom upon which Freud reads the latter’s lesbianism, one which, in turn, White likens (as a lesbian symptom) to the very queer abundance of knocking sounds in The Haunting’s ghost film plot in a particularly gripping section of her article (and later, her UnInvited book) entitled “Things that go bump in the night.”

I can honestly say that I had not made any conscious connection between all of this knocking (in a cluster of texts to which I have been deeply attached) and my own auditory experiments as I made Rites of Passage. These connections—this queer intertextuality—have only struck me now, after teasing them out (or working them through) in this “making of” reflection. With my copied, pasted and transformed sound effect, it seems I have grafted my memory of White’s analysis of The Haunting onto my earlier reading of Freud and simultaneously onto my deep personal attachment to Rebecca as a liminal text, but in ways that remained almost completely obscure, not to say obtuse, to me until now. These personally “representable” connections are, of course, likely also to have remained completely obscure and possibly to appear stupid to any viewer of my video. And they may well continue to do so.

For Roland Barthes, the “obtuse meaning” of a text, as opposed to its “informational” or symbolic meanings, might indeed be a bit of a joke: as he wrote, “the obtuse meaning appears to extend outside culture, knowledge, information: analytically, it has something derisory about it; […] it belongs to the family of pun, buffoonery, useless expenditure.”[23] And there are certainly some rather comic aspects to my otherwise deeply earnest story of “becoming lesbian” through films and film theories. But I’d hazard a guess that in many ways the above is quite a typical story of academic queerness; indeed, other published accounts testify as much to this.[24]

In UnInvited, White valuably coined the term “retrospectatorship” for a viewing mode shaped by the experiences, fantasies, and memories it elicits in the spectator. My account of the making of the Rites of Passage video demonstrates how retrospectatorship can evidently also underpin a production mode, especially in the context of spectatorial productions, or ones involving remixing existing films.[25] What is especially curious to me are the ways in which the above described memories and experiences have coalesced in this production, and played (or acted) themselves out–some consciously, others unconsciously–in the otherwise relatively mechanical procedure of collecting and joining together predetermined film sequences.

Looking back on it a year later, Rites of Passage clearly marked a shift in my experiments with videographic film studies, most notably heralding my growing confidence in the use of explicitly creative (and not always primarily informational, or scholarly) approaches to research and videography.[26] It is clear to me now, also, that in the context of this work feminist and psychoanalytic theories not only offer an additional intertextual axis along which to “read” my video, as well as its process of making, but they actively contributed to it by forging similar kinds of personally and historically contingent phenomenological frames as the film(s) that inspired this work: Hitchcock and Fontaine’s Rebecca (and Robert Wise’s The Haunting). Like films, we don’t just come to know theoretical readings, or any other discursive frames for our viewings, we also have conscious and unconscious experiential, affective and also retroactive relationships with them, which become inseparable from our acts of spectatorship and retrospectatorship.[27] As key parts of this, the activation of curiosity or the exercising of epistemophilia are also sensuous (not simply cognitive) activities; there is certainly many a queer pleasure to be had in the cinematic or cultural experience of not quite knowing for sure. Perhaps exploring these pleasures, and their attached poignancies, using the kinds of videographic parameters and techniques I have been describing, can enable us to get in touch with important aspects of film spectatorship that seem to be less accessible or even inexpressible in other (differently constrained) forms of scholarly work.

Catherine Grant is Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Sussex. Author and editor of numerous film studies videos, as well as of written studies of intertextuality, film authorship and adaptation theories, she runs the Film Studies For Free, Filmanalytical and Audiovisualcy websites and, in 2012, guest edited the inaugural issue of online cinema journal Frames on digital forms of film studies. She is a founding co-editor of [in]TRANSITION, a new videographic film and moving image studies journal. She has just published another multimedia essay in which she reflects on classical Hollywood melodramas and feminist film theory: ‘The Marriages of Laurel Dallas: Or, The Maternal Melodrama of the Unknown Feminist Film Spectator’, Mediascape, Fall 2014. Online at:


[1] Opening sentence of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca as well as the first spoken words (by Joan Fontaine) in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 adaptation of it.

[2] Patricia White, UnInvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability (Indiana University Press, 1999), 215.

[3] Catherine Grant, “Déjà-Viewing? Videographic Experiments in Intertextual Film Studies,” Mediascape, Winter 2013. Accessed on 1/11/2014.

[4] Tania Modleski, The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory (New York and London: Routledge, 1988), 47.

[5] Catherine Grant, Skipping Rope (2012). Accessed on 1/11/2014. See also my discussion of this work: “Bonus Tracks: The making of ‘Touching the film object’ and ‘Skipping ROPE (through Hitchcock’s joins)’,Frames Cinema Journal, 1.1, July 2012. Accessed on 1/11/2014. (with transcription: Since making Rites of Passage I have also directed and co-edited one further videographic assemblage of instances of a particular film feature: Intersection which collects the musical montage sequences of Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000). Girish Shambu curated this piece in Issue 1.2 of [in]Transition, 2014. Accessed on 1/11/2014. These works are not supercuts, which collect material from different films, but they are certainly related to this form of remix. According to Andy Baio, who coined the term in 2008, “supercuts are obsessive-compulsive montages of video clips, meticulously isolating every instance of a single item, usually clichés, phrases, and other tropes.” Accessed on 1/11/2014. Cited by Miklós Kiss, “Creativity Beyond Originality: György Pálfi’s Final Cut as Narrative Supercut.” Senses of Cinema, 67, July 2013. Accessed on 1/11/2014.

[6] I saw this film as part of a screening program, “From Found Footage Film To The Audiovisual Essay,” shown at the Frankfurt Filmmuseum, November 23-24, 2013, which was curated by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin as part of their international workshop on The Audiovisual Essay: Practice and Theory. When some of my cinephile friends saw Rites of Passage they told me it reminded them of another film (that I still haven’t seen, and didn’t at that stage know of) by the same filmmakers: Home Stories (1990). It is, as Thomas Elsaesser writes of this film as follows, “a compilation of women in 1950s melodramas tossing restlessly in their beds, slipping on dressing gowns, waiting anxiously at dusk or dawn, listening at closed doors or peering through windows with oppressively heavy drapes before running, panicked, along corridors or exiting, finally, into the open.” (Elsaesser, “Neuer Berliner Kunstverein – Phoenix Tapes #4,” (November 2013). Accessed on 1/11/2014.–

[7] I have a record of creating tributes to recently deceased film stars: see for instance “Mechanised Flights: Memories of HEIDI”. Originally published, with an accompanying text, by Film Ireland, Feburary 12, 2014. Accessed on 1/11/2014. I have discussed this and other tributes in an as yet upublished paper “Losing/finding/creating the (child) star: on online mourning and videographic objects,” presented at the Film and the Psycho-Cultural: Objects, Relatedness, Process Symposium, Freud Museum, London, May 31, 2014

[8] See Pam Cook’s contribution to this issue for her study of these feelings and processes: “Dancing with Pixels: Digital Artefacts, Memory, and the Beauty of Loss.”

[9] The commercially available version in which Joel McNeely conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

[10] This is how David Neumeyer and Nathan Platte describe the music for the “Rebecca’s Room” scene in their study Franz Waxman’s Rebecca: A Film Score Guide (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2012), 80. They also argue that, in this scene, “The music refuses to offer a clear reading of this uncertain exchange as the two women examine Rebecca’s clothes” (Ibid., p. 155).

[11] As the New York Times critic Donal Henahan referred to it in his review of a 1984 performance of Stravinsky’s music, conducted by Leonard Bernstein: “Philharmonic: Incarnations of Spring,” The New York Times, March 23, 1984. Accessed on 1/11/2014. 1984

[12] Curiously, while writing this essay, I discovered that Waxman knew Stravinsky — the two coincided in Hollywood, and the German-born composer promoted and conducted the Russian composer’s work in the U.S.; see Crawford, Dorothy Lamb. A Windfall of Musicians: Hitler’s Émigrés and Exiles in Southern California (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 238

[13] In their account of Waxman’s score, Neumeyer and Platte use the resonant phrase “veiled impressionism” about it: Franz Waxman’s Rebecca: A Film Score Guide, 74.

[14] Although more figuratively, less formally challenging than the Stravinsky.

[15] Patricia White, “Female Spectator, Lesbian Specter: The Haunting,” in Diana Fuss (ed.), Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories (London and New York: Routledge, 1991). A later version of this essay is collected in Patricia White’s own book, UnInvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability.

[16] White, “Female Spectator, Lesbian Specter: The Haunting.”

[17] Tania Modleski, The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory (London: Methuen, 1988).

[18] Katharina Lindner, “Questions of embodied difference: Film and queer phenomenology,” NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies, Autumn 2012. Accessed on 1/11/2014. Lindner is recalling Patrica White’s arguments in UnInvited at this point in her text.

[19] Patricia White in Annamarie Jagose, “Hollywood Lesbians: Annamarie Jagose interviews Patricia White about Her Latest Book, UnInvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability,” Genders Online Journal, 32, 2000. Accessed on 1/11/2014.

[20] White in Jagose, “Hollywood Lesbians.”

[21] White in Jagose, “Hollywood Lesbians.”

[22] Sigmund Freud, “A Case of Paranoia Running Counter to the Psycho-Analytic Theory of the Disease’”(1915), in Philip Rieff (ed), Sexuality and the Psychology of Love (New York: Collier, 1963), 97-106.

[23] Roland Barthes, ‘The Third Meaning (1970)” in Image, Music, Text (Glasgow: Fontana Press, 1985), 55.

[24] The brilliant work of the late queer film and media studies scholar Alexander Doty would be a key example: “My Beautiful Wickedness: The Wizard of Oz as Lesbian Fantasy,” Flaming Classics: Queering the Film Canon (London and New York: Routledge, 2000). See my video tribute to this work (on The Wizard of Oz as a ‘lesbian text’): The Beautiful Wickedness of Queer Reading (2012). Accessed on 1/11/2014.

[25] This is, of course, nothing new. As Catherine Fowler writes of art gallery found footage and remix experiments: “The look backward of the gallery films that reenact and remake goes beyond the visible image track of cinema’s past because it is formed collectively from both the ‘there’ of cinema, or the real screened images, and what artist Pierre Huyghe ingeniously calls the ‘elsewhere,’ or the reactions to, feelings from, and desire for, remembered films: ‘In a narrative, whatever is not present (there), whatever refers to another time or another space (over there), is connected to the memory of the person receiving it, to a previous real existence. In this way, its reception is a subjective experience of producing meaning. By momentarily inhabiting this elsewhere, by mentally reconstructing this intervening moment, the viewer actively occupies his or her time and becomes the co-author of the narrative’.” In Fowler, “From “Remembering Cinema ‘Elsewhere’: From Retrospection to Introspection in the Gallery Film,” Cinema Journal Vol. 51, No. 2 (Winter 2012): 26-45. Christian Keathley cited this passage in his curatorial text on the imposition of formal parameters in the process of videographic work: ‘The ABCs of Forms & Genres,” [in]Transition, 1.2, 2014. Accessed on 1/11/2014.

[26] I have also described these approaches as uncreative ones, using copying and pasting without obvious or conventional critical or creative commentary drawing on the work of Kenneth Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in a Digital Age (Columbia University Press, New York, 2011). See Catherine Grant, “Scholarly Striptease. Or, The Unintended Consequences of Film Studies For Free,” In Media Res (Open Source Academia Theme Week), December 1-5, 2014. Accessed 1/12/2014.

[27] As Nishant Shahani puts it, retrospectatorship “is not the mere privileging of a present experience over the past; it rejects the presentist structure of such a temporal imposition by acknowledging the accumulated history of those experiences in restructuring the past.” Shahani, Queer Retrosexualities: The Politics of Reparative Return (Washington: ‪Lexington Books, 2012), 84-5.