For Love or Money: A history of women and work in Australia is a feature documentary by Megan McMurchy, Margot Nash, Margot Oliver and Jeni Thornley released in 1983. This feminist classic was digitally restored from original film materials by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia in 2017. The film has been in active distribution for over 40 years with distributor Ronin Films and is available on VOD, DVD and DCP.
The following essay, 'For Love or Money: Conflicting Temporalities' is a revised and edited extract from Felicity Collins, “The Experimental Practice of History in the Filmwork of Jeni Thornley”, uploaded to Screening the Past Issue 3, 29 May 1998.
The most synthetic of all art forms, film is the space in which the representative and symbolic birth of a female person can take place through the reconstruction of her history. (Barbara Kosta, Recasting Autobiography, 1994: 164)
In a belated reading of Claire Johnston’s influential work as a 1970s cultural activist, Meaghan Morris attempts to clarify the paradox of feminism’s constructive approach to social change in the face of its skeptical approach to history. She argues that feminism’s difference from other radical political and aesthetic movements is characterised by modes of action “to bring about concrete social changes while at the same time contesting the very bases of modern thinking about what constitutes ‘change'” (“‘Too Soon, Too Late’: Reading Claire Johnston, 1970-81,” in Dissonance: Feminism and the Arts 1970-90, ed. C. Moore, 1994: 128). Morris’s essay is an attempt to think about what it takes for feminist forms of action (which include festivals and seminars, essays and films) to redefine (as well as survive) historical change.
Here, I draw on contemporary readings of Walter Benjamin’s disruptive concept of history to revisit the 1983 documentary film, For Love or Money (a collective film by Megan McMurchy, Margot Nash, Margot Oliver and Jeni Thornley). Assembling a vast amount of archival footage and adding a rhythmic and intimate voice-over, For Love or Money was part of a paradigm shift in feminist film-thinking, away from the concept of ‘the spectator’ towards cinema as a public sphere “through which social experience is articulated, interpreted, negotiated and contested in an intersubjective, potentially collective, and oppositional form.” (Miriam Hansen, “Early Cinema, Late Cinema” in Viewing Positions, ed, L. Williams, 1995: 140)
For Love or Money had its origins when Sandra Alexander, co-ordinator of the 1977 Women’s Film Production workshop, suggested to Thornley and McMurchy that it would be a good idea to get together all the images of women in Australian films and have a look at them. This dovetailed with a request, in 1978, from the organisers of the first Women and Labour Conference to the Sydney Women’s Film Group to make a film of all the archival images of women at work. These apparently modest requests resulted in six years of painstaking work of collecting, cataloguing, and reprinting film and photographic images.
The formal challenge of narrating two centuries of Australian women’s history in a feature length film which used over two hundred film clips was further complicated by what Walter Benjamin identified as a crisis in the tradition of storytelling, evident since World War I when “men returned from the battlefield grown silent – not richer, but poorer in communicable experience.” (“The Storyteller” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn and ed. Hannah Arendt, 1970; reprint, 1992: 84). For Love or Money was conceived as an antidote to the exclusion of women from Australian national history, yet the problem of finding a suitable narrative form for communicating women’s historical experience was never fully resolved by the makers of For Love or Money:
“There were times when it got very frustrating because we would have liked to have structured For Love or Money differently. The showreel was great to cut; it was such fun because it wasn’t chronological and I could really play, in the editing, across periods. It didn’t have that dreadful rigid chronology. In trying to find another structure that was not chronological, there just came a time when we had to let go because no one came up with anything; no one solved it.” (Margot Nash. Interview with the author, 1 July 1992).
The challenge facing the filmmakers, to find a non-chronological structure, can be understood in terms of the distinction between conscious, voluntary memory and the act of remembrance. Like Benjamin, Irving Wohlfarth contends that modern historiography is a “mere pile of souvenirs” which “substitutes voluntary memory for authentic remembrance”. (“On the Messianic Structure of Walter Benjamin’s Last Reflections,” Glyph 3, 1978: 166). This contention is particularly pertinent to the struggle to produce an authentic, feminist mode of remembrance in For Love or Money. Wohlfarth suggests one path to authentic remembrance when he begins with Benjamin’s claim that the epic as the oldest form of historiography, containing within it the story and the novel, and their corresponding forms of memory: the storyteller’s epic memory (gedachtnis) of short-lived reminiscences and multiple events; and the novelist’s perpetuating memory (eingedenken) dedicated to “the one hero, the one odyssey, the one struggle” (1978: 149-50). Distinguishing between the epic genre of the chronicle (associated with oral tradition) and the conflation of chronology with the idea of progress (in the novel), Wohlfarth poses a choice for the historian: “historicism’s universal panorama” or “highly particular interactions between past and present” (1978: 167).
For Love or Money adopts historicism’s “universal panorama” yet fractures it in three ways. Firstly, “multiple events” are narrated from a feminist perspective on the present, challenging standard accounts of Australian national identity built on mateship and the bush ethos. Secondly, the film evokes “particular interactions between past and present” through audio-visual montage-sequences and the voice-over, offering a history of “multiple reminiscences” rather than one of lone heroes. And thirdly, the film’s apocalyptic perspective, on the present (the atomic age) heralds the annihilation rather than the redemption of history.
A feminist, historical temporality is specified at the beginning and in the closing montage of For Love or Money. The opening montage of shots is accompanied by a non-Anglo woman’s voice-over which establishes that this will be a history from below: “We find heroes only in monuments in public parks, but I think the real heroes are us.” The closing montage includes photographs of the filmmakers at work on the film, followed by a compilation of scenes from local feminist films, and a voice-over:
"We go back. We ask what happened then. We find documents, diaries, letters, images. Stories are uncovered. The stories of women’s work.”
Like Benjamin’s historical materialist, the filmmakers understand that historicism favours the victor, and that their task, as feminist activists, is to take the documents preserved by the victor and “brush history against the grain” (Benjamin, 248). This task is made all the harder by the disjuncture between photographic representation and the memory-image. As Kracauer reminds us, the recent past captured in the photographic image can becomes comic, like recent fashion (“Photography” in Critical Inquiry, 19.3, 1993: 430). A wry montage of marriage proposals from Australian feature films in For Love or Money exploits the comic effect of antiquated images of the recent past, inviting sceptical laughter at an outdated nationalism. This contrasts with the significance of the memory-image which “outlasts time because it is unforgettable” (Kracauer, 1993: 428).
At the time of its release in 1983, For Love or Money attracted vocal criticism for the way its first-person plural voice-over : “We remember her labour. We remember that she gave. What we were to each other”. “We” was heard, then, as producing a unified female subject of history and eliding differences between women. A retrospective viewing of For Love or Money offers another interpretation: that the collective “we” of female unity is fragmented into multiple reminiscences which work against the unifying voice of the narrator and against the linearity of historicist time. From this perspective, modernity’s conflicting temporalities (of race, class and gender) undercut the panoramic unity of the first-person voice-over in For Love or Money. Drawing on key events of national history (such as the long struggle for equal pay and women’s rotation in and out of the workplace at times of war) as the sites or loci of memory, the filmmakers organised a wealth of archival images into a new temporal order. This disruptive temporality serves to undercut the panoramic logic of a masculine, nation- building history. The “we” of the narration, then, brings together a multitude of voices.
For Love or Money begins with anthropological footage of Aboriginal women whose stories reverberate with the on-going consequences of their dispossession from the land. Their colonised modernity is a different temporality from that of white, settler women whose historical experience takes multiple forms under convictism, land settlement, industrial, and digital economies.
The 1890s, the 1920s and the Depression of the 1930s constitute significant events in white women’s temporality. While working class women engage in struggles for equal pay, union representation and access to better paid ‘male’ jobs, middle-class women appear in the public sphere as reformers and campaigners.
The influx of a labour force of immigrants after World War II produces the greatest temporal shock since colonisation: southern European rural time is traded for the industrial time of the assembly line and its promise of mobility expressed in the anonymous voice-over, “Sometimes I dream I will be coming out of that bloody factory.”
In the 1920s and again in the 1950s, as the commodification of housework and child care intensifies, women enter new temporalities as consumers of modern, privatised lifestyles. In the 1960s access to higher education propels the postwar generation ofupwardly mobile young women (including the filmmakers) into an oppositional public sphere defined by the New Left and the liberation movements.
How, then, is a feminist narration of history to end if not in the present as a redemptive awakening through women’s liberation? In the interests of a united women’s movement, For Love or Money, at one level, attempts to subsume the film’s multiple reminiscences into one temporality. It stages the present as “a state of emergency” (Benjamin, Theses 248), a disruptive “now-time” that appears in modernity’s ultimate eruptive image: Hiroshima. The narrator declares: “We are the daughters of the atomic age: numb, silent, grieving.” While this is a point of unity in the film, multiple endings pile up as different histories are brought to a standstill by the image of the atomic mushroom cloud.
The first of the film’s endings begins with footage of a women’s demonstration, accompanied by a voice-over which seeks “new meanings for work,” challenging “work ruled by profit, efficiency, progress, war.” The film acknowledges its own historicist impasse when its careful documentation of the ninety-year struggle for equal pay ends with the statement, “Progress, but it didn’t really change things.”
The second ending begins with a slow motion shot of women in black, arms linked, faces quietly determined, as they participate in the first Anzac Day commemoration of women raped in war. The voice-over declares, “We are women of the nuclear age. We resist. We place our bodies in the way.”
The image track cuts abruptly to a third ending with a shot of Aboriginal artefacts hanging on a wall, followed by an aged photograph of Aboriginal women. A new voice speaks over the Aboriginal song:
“Listen to us. Our country is very beautiful. It is our grandfathers’ country and our grandmothers’ country from a long time ago. It is the sacred soil of the dreamtime. Why do you never understand?”
A fourth ending begins with stills of the filmmakers, seeking to construct a new, feminist temporality, as they work with images and stories they have uncovered. This ending contrasts the daughter’s story of resistance with the mother’s “story of the kitchen, the story of the clean house.” A compilation of mother-daughter photographs, accompanied by a ‘hymn to the mother’ is followed by shots of men holding their children:
“We ask what might happen if men learnt the story of women’s work.”
At this point the film seems to be over, but the return of the problem of women’s work and the maternal is displaced by a last-minute reprise of the activist ethos in the resonant image of the Anzac Day memorial march for women: an image that fades, blurs, turns to blue and finally to black. What is the future of this deeply mournful image – an image of feminists born under the sign of Hiroshima, mourning unknown women raped in war?
For Love or Money ends in a nuclear present where the cessation of history (and its modernist myth of continual progress) threatens to be apocalyptic rather than redemptive. Osborne is critical of the persistence of apocalyptic narrative in Benjamin’s thinking, especially the emphasis on a “generalized sense of crisis, characteristic of the time-consciousness of modernity as perpetual transition” (Osborne, The Politics of Time, 1995: 157). Osborne revives the discourse of political modernism when he argues for now-time “as an integral moment within a new, non-traditional, future-oriented and internally disrupted form of narrativity” which cannot be co-opted into reactionary refiguration “of history as a whole” (158-9).
For Love or Money occupies a space between historicist and materialist forms of narrative: it draws on multiple temporalities to refigure “history as a whole” in order to bring it within the grasp of the present moment. Yet, the attempt to grasp history in the present (to arrive at a future-oriented ending) is precisely the point at which narratives of crisis, redemption, or apocalypse fall into ruin. This breakdown of historical narrative, in the present, marks the moment of skepticism in feminism’s experimental practice of history.
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