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Wollen, Peter (1938-)

Director, Producer, Presenter

Main image of Wollen, Peter (1938-)

Peter Wollen was born in London on 29 June 1938 and studied English at Christchurch College, Oxford. Both political journalist and film theorist, Wollen's Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, first published in 1969, helped to transform the discipline of film studies by incorporating the methodologies of structuralism and semiotics.

Wollen's first film credit was as co-writer of Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger (Professione: Reporter, Italy, 1975) and he made his debut as a director with Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons (1974), the first of six films co-written and co-directed with his wife, Laura Mulvey. The low-budget Penthesilea portrayed women's language and mythology as silenced by patriarchal structures. Acknowledging the influence of Godard's Le Gai Savoir (France, 1968), Wollen intended the film to fuse avant-garde and radically political elements. The resultant work is innovative in the context of British cinema history, although unsurprisingly its relentlessly didactic approach did not make for mass appeal.

For Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), their most remarkable collaborative work, Wollen and Mulvey obtained a BFI Production Board grant, which enabled them to work with greater technical resources. Rewriting the Oedipal myth from a female standpoint, they use formal devices, such as their impressively choreographed circular pans, to create an expressionist effect which complicates and enhances the film's narrative content.

AMY! (1980), commemorating Amy Johnson's solo flight from Britain to Australia, syntheses themes previously covered by Wollen and Mulvey, but it is unwieldy and deliberately ahistorical. More watchable is Crystal Gazing (1982) in which formal experimentation is muted and narrative concerns emphasised. The film was criticised in some quarters for the absence of an explicitly feminist perspective, but it enjoyed generally favourable reviews. Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti (1982), a short film tied to an international art exhibition curated by Wollen, and The Bad Sister (1982), a cumbersome drama based on a novel by Emma Tennant, were the final projects on which Wollen and Mulvey collaborated.

Wollen's only solo feature, Friendship's Death (1987), was the bizarre and absorbing story of the relationship between a British war correspondent and a female extraterrestrial robot on a peace mission to Earth, who, missing her intended destination of MIT, lands inadvertently in Amman, Jordan during the events of 'Black September' 1970. The film's intelligent wit, coupled with outstanding performances from Tilda Swinton and Bill Paterson, makes this Wollen's most compelling film.

Wollen has taught film at a number of universities and is currently chair of the Department of Film, Television and New Media at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Field, Simon, 'Two Weeks on Another Planet', Monthly Film Bulletin 646, 1987, pp. 324-6
Friedman, Lester D., 'Interview with Peter Wollen and Laura Mulvey on Riddles of the Sphinx', Millennium Film Journal 4/5, 1979, pp. 14-32
Mulvey, Laura and Wollen, Peter, 'Written Discussion', After Image, July 1976, pp. 31-9
Wollen, Peter, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (London: Secker and Warburg, 2nd edition, 1972)

Eleanor Burke, Directors in British and Irish Cinema

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons (1974)Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons (1974)

Challenging investigation of the iconography of warrior women

Thumbnail image of Riddles of the Sphinx (1977)Riddles of the Sphinx (1977)

Influential avant-garde exploration of female experience

Related collections

Thumbnail image of The BFI Production Board: The FeaturesThe BFI Production Board: The Features

How the BFI tried to create an alternative British art cinema

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Mulvey, Laura (1941-)Mulvey, Laura (1941-)

Director, Producer, Actor