“If Ocean’s Eleven manned up and went to war,” or, “The feel-dead movie of the year.” This begs for lame taglines.
Bill Murray, cinema, Elle MacPherson, film, Hugh Grant, Jim Henson, Katherin Heigl, Kermit the Frog, Knocked Up, Miss Piggie, movies, muppets, Portia de Rossi, Seth Rogen, Sirens, The Man Who Knew Too Little, The Muppet Movie
The Man Who Knew Too Little (dir. John Amiel, 1997) – This one’s always been fun and always will be. In the 90s, Bill Murray swung back and forth between the type of comedy that defined his 80s stuff and more sophisticated “dramedies” (gross word) that became his norm in the 00s. I always think of The Man Who Knew Too Little along with Larger Than Life, probably on account of the fact that they’re both silly, funny, slightly juvenile movies that nevertheless feature Bill doing one form or another of his shtick: either sarcastic and exhausted (think Groundhog Day) or gleefully oblivious (think What About Bob). Best scene here is probably his “acting scene” with real muggers as his audience. This was all before Bill got really…sad, apparently (see pretty much everything he did subsequently with Jim Jarmusch, Wes Anderson, and Sofia Coppola).
Knocked Up (dir. Judd Apatow, 2007) – Never ceases to amaze just how conservative this film is; not in a bad way…but rather misogynistic, in a bad way. Along with Apatow’s The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up continues the cycle of movies featuring lost characters who find themselves in some form of sexual dilemma (first, the problem of not getting any; second, the problem of getting some) and end up discovering that the best solution is also the most old-fashioned one. Here, that means, ironically, rejecting your parents’ advice (in one case, the suggestion of getting an abortion – a word they refuse to mention here) and going along with the pregnancy despite the unwelcome conception. This one is even more homoerotic than 40 Year-Old Virgin, though not quite as much as Superbad. Male characters display endless fear of real women, preferring rather to enjoy women by proxy: either through the one guy among them with the huevos to hook up with a girl, or via their TV. The previously mentioned conference paper regarding male anxiety over the traditional heteronormative dyad couldn’t be more applicable here. The fact that the baby in Knocked Up ends up being a girl is wildly appropriate. The fear that defined the entire pregnancy becomes a little basket o’ fear with the unintentional creation of another female, this one as allusive to the unemployed, misogynistic male as the others. Katherine Heigl’s well documented complaints over the film’s depiction of women are well warranted…although she probably could’ve read the script before signing on.
Sirens (dir. John Duigan, 1994) – A little hard to discern whether this is just so over-the-top cliché or a slight spin on that. It appears to take the exact sort of cheap shots toward the religious establishment that Hugh Grant’s character charges of others within the film, though at least it can be said that Grant’s minister has some humanity within him. A self-confessed rabble rouser, the Anglican priest refuses to be a “fundie,” insisting on the finest Turkish cigarettes and priding himself on fluency in art history. Still, his repressed wife’s highly predictable blossoming into one of the titular figures, casting off any and all hindrances separating her from free living in the rural Outback, essentially creates an excuse for a narrative that the film itself finds rather unnecessary. While the minister character creates the appearance of dodging the cliché bullet, it turns out to be a charade. When it matters most, the character is utterly static, not only unwilling to change or at least offer some backbone, but also to understand better his wife’s transformation. The twist ending creates some serious continuity problems that makes the story retrospectively incoherent. We really have the same problem here we had in Big Fish: a story obsessed with its own visuals, filled with flat characters, and featuring a shallow and unconvincing character shift.
The Muppet Movie (dir. James Frawley, 1979) – As good as ever, but being more of a slave to narrative these days throws one for a loop. Just a road trip movie, basically, which is why the later Muppets Take Manhattan included the (unnecessary) twist of Kermit’s amnesia. The in-jokes here are plentiful and bountiful, rich with comedic implications. Above all, really, is the simple joke that we’re watching a bunch of puppets. Henson’s genius was in being so good at it – both in terms of comedy and drama – that the audience’s incredulity isn’t just suspended but utterly discarded. The fourth wall isn’t so much broken here as shattered, with numerous acknowledgments of the script, the filming, the audience, and the performance. The whole thing renders itself ridiculous and meaningless, which is fitting, since it’s here that we observe a Butch Cassidy-like romantic sequence between a puppet frog and pig.
Saw this one the other week at the Stanford Theatre during the wonderful Kurosawa run (which is not yet over). First time to have seen it in 35mm, which was pure joy. This may be the best thing I’ve ever seen on the big screen. (Contrary to today’s commonplace, it’s camerawork, not the appearance of camerawork that sells you; sorry, Avatar.) More than ever the film feels like a parable for film itself; particularly for Kurosawa as a filmmaker. Yoshimoto suggests this in his chapter on the film, but the fact becomes plainer and plainer upon each viewing. Sanjuro (Mifune) is a ronin, competent, fierce, but also playful – how does this not also describe Kurosawa? At this point in his career Kurosawa had more freedom than he knew what to do with, such that he could practically pick up a stick, toss it up in the air, and follow the left fork in the road since the stick pointed that way. Sanjuro arrives in a town where there are two feuding clans, not unlike Toho and Daiei studios in Japan, between which Kurosawa moved more than once. Sanjuro’s ascent to the top of the tower to watch the two clans duke it out for his own amusement ends up as a sort of self-effacement on Kurosawa’s part. He ends up showing the vacuity of such childishness.
The most overt parallel, perhaps, is in the departure of the resident samurai (instructor) upon Sanjuro’s arrival. (Can’t remember, but I think Stephen Prince pointed this out.) The old instructor old stuff now, past his prime and in need of replacement. The actor who plays him is Susumu Fujita, Kurosawa’s protagonist in his old samurai films Sanshiro Sugata and the sequel to it. Fujita, who also starred in No Regrets for Our Youth and The Men Who Tread on Tiger’s Tail back in the 40s, makes an appearance in The Hidden Fortress and is soundly defeated in a duel by Mifune’s character. Here in Yojimbo Kurosawa is cementing Mifune’s status not only as his actor of choice, but as his new kind of samurai. Who better, then, to jump the fence and run away before the battle begins than Fujita? The kindly farewell wave shared between the old samurai/actor and the new is as overt a nod we’re going to get. Unkempt, itchy, and always with a hankering for some sake and rice, Sanjuro is the new image of the updated samurai.
One thing Sanjuro serves to illustrate is that stupid in-fighting is a thing of the past, along with taking oneself too seriously. How better to teach these amateurs than to use their own weapon (violence) against them by means of their tool of choice (ignorance). In so doing, Kurosawa illustrates the failure of traditional jidai-geki films to depict violence with honesty. In those films, violence was rendered harmless in the long run: no blood, no severed limbs, no flesh-slicing sound effects. In Yojimbo Kurosawa begins a new tradition (one he would grow to regret trailblazing) of realistic violence. The irony, of course, is that Kurosawa’s goal was to repel viewers, not attract them to such acts. Kurosawa is always called a humanist, and not without good reason. An early shot in Yojimbo has a stray dog (little nod there) with a human hand in its mouth trotting casually through town, as if to welcome Sanjuro with a sampling of what he’ll get to experience after spending some time there. And Sanjuro adapts effectively: the first thing he does with his sword is amputate an arm.
The famous and overwhelmingly innovative photography of this film is quite consistent with the main ideas of the film, along with its historical context. We’re now very post-war, indeed, and Japan’s problems now have to do with modernization and Westernization at a whole new level. The Japanese as a people were defined by problems that got them involved in WWII, and they were subsequently humiliated and rebuilt as a nation afterward. Now, Japan as a nation was going head-first into the modern era – about to host the World’s Fair in Tokyo in a couple years – again blindly submitting to the idea of what “Japan” was supposed to be. Kurosawa’s concerns had to do with the lack of the individual in Japanese society, the absence of the single voice (and single voices!) who would challenge the status quo, think independently and creatively, and challenge the notion(s) prevalent of where Japan was headed. Sanjuro is just that character, though an imperfect one. He’s not idealized, though as “humanist” it might have been a temptation for Kurosawa to idealize his hero. Rather, we have a man who survived the previous age (little mentions are made about the era preceding this film’s diegetic timeline) and, masterless, wandered the land finding patches of inept and ignorant people to teach and toy with.
The film Comedian is exhausting, in part in a good way and in part not so much. The “good” exhausting comes from watching Jerry Seinfeld try to develop a new stand-up act after retiring all of his previous material. The viewer gains a newfound respect for the process of writing a stand-up bit, especially enough to withstand the demands of a hungry audience for over an hour. Seinfeld is remarkably honest here, even including a painfully lengthy clip of him biffing a joke at a comedy club. He doesn’t simply pick up and move to the next thing. He wallows in his failure, on display for the crowd to see, as they try to chuckle mercifully with (and hopefully not at) the man they’d all grown to love from one of TV’s most successful sitcoms. Seinfeld mentions a number of times how much it feels like he’s starting over, back in his twenties and trying to get some gigs to test fresh jokes.
As for the arduously exhausting part of Comedian, that comes from being forced to watch – to listen to, mostly – Orny Adams, a young comedian trying desperately to put himself on the map. His insecurities are so glowing, his self-confidence so contrived, and his jokes so intense that it really just feels like we’re watching an early career train wreck. Seinfeld, on the other hand, consults with the likes of Colin Quinn, Chris Rock, Jay Leno, and Bill Cosby. They all talk about the challenges of stand-up in a borderline pretentious manner, but on the other hand, you do have to appreciate the difficulty of such a career. Those who are great deserve all the credit they’ve got coming; what’s odd is seeing these greats complain about how hard it is. As a film, this doc probably could’ve done without the Orny Adams bit, but perhaps it offers a perspective of a comedian about to break into the big time stand-up world as opposed to a stand-up rock star testing new bait in new waters. Turns out stand-up is, like anything else, both an art and a science. Having the gift isn’t enough, and having just the technique isn’t, either. On his sitcom, Jerry Seinfeld gained a reputation of being hard working. If this doc does nothing else, it certainly displays a devoted man working hard to hit “refresh” on his career.
Howard Hawks is noteworthy in cinema for lots of reasons; he’s infamous for just a few. Among them is Hawks’ history of battling the censors. Before the Hays Code came into official effect, he directed the classic Scarface, that great old violent mobster movie that shook things up long before Brian DePalma and Al Pacino whipped out their little friend and added some ultraviolence. Other films, such as Hawks’ adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s pulp novel The Big Sleep brought a strongly homoerotic element into film noir that added increased anxiety to an already-anxiety-driven genre of American cinema. Once Marilyn Monroe entered the movie world in the late 40s, it was only a matter of time before directors like Hawks and Billy Wilder would take advantage of her voluptuous image to mix things up a little on the screen.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is great for functioning both as classic, textbook Laura Mulvey material and also playing with, or possibly even undermining, the Mulveyan notion of narrative cinema as geared for a male viewing audience. In a quick review, Mulvey’s argument in her seminal “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema” sets forth that conventional narrative film form has built into it the assumption of an active male viewer bound by a scopohilic gaze on the passive, objectified woman on screen. Two types of scopophila (the pleasure of looking) are at work: fetishistic scopophilia – in which the woman on screen is fetishized through the male viewer’s castration anxiety – and narcissistic scopophilia – in which the male viewer identifies actively with the on-screen male who is also defined by his gaze upon the passive woman. The purpose of fetishistic scopophilia is to negotiate the male’s fear of the woman (on account of her castration, and therefore the threat of castration to him, too); the purpose of narcissistic scopophilia is to narrow the viewing gap between the male spectator and the woman (who is “to-be-looked-at”) while still keeping her at arm’s length. By narrowing the gap, the male viewer comes under the false impression that the image is mediated neither by the camera filming it nor by the falseness of the image (not the “real thing” but rather bright light projecting stained celluloid). Still, by narcissistically identifying with the diegetic male character, the male viewer’s castration anxiety is slightly alleviated by proxy. As a result of narcissistic scopophilia, the male viewer turns the image of woman into a fetish object, desiring both to punish and to idealize her. As for the female viewer, she is excluded; narrative cinema’s classic form does not take her into account. (Discussions of things like “chick flicks” are not inconsistent with this notion but will have to wait til another day.)
The opening scene of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes features the two women, Lorelei (Marilyn) and Dorothy (Jane Russell), singing and dancing on stage while looking directly at the camera. Interesting, the film’s opening credits interrupt the routine, which then resumes after Howard Hawks’ name gets the directorial credit. It’s only after some time has passed that we finally get a reverse shot of the audience, which focuses on Gus, Lorelei’s decidedly castrated fiancée. This cut comes not a moment too soon. Finally, the viewer can breathe a sigh of relief through the acknowledgment by the cinema screen itself that this is, in fact, cinema. Until the reverse shot takes place, we seem to be watching a filmed stage performance, un-mediated and unadulterated. In Mulveyan terms, castration anxiety is in full effect. Once the reverse shot gives us the image of a rather pathetic looking man, narrative significance is finally given to what was strictly non-narrative before. The song-and-dance routines freeze the narrative from progressing and offer only a one-way gaze by the male viewer of the women on screen. The reverse shot of Gus only hints at the narrative, but it is not the reverse shot with which a male viewer wants to identify; Gus is not the way the male viewer sees himself looking at the ladies, although perhaps Gus is all-too telling of the male viewer’s anxiety.
Once the girls exit the stage, their dialogue offers further evidence of what their lyrics already suggested: they have it all quite figured out. They know what they want, and make no mistake, they want a lot. Their cleverness lies in their clear understanding that the men want them a lot, a fact that they use throughout the film as a bargaining tool. Lorelei obviously is interested in diamonds, classic commodities that, she admits, “are a girl’s best friend.” There’s no surprise here, based on the old cliché. What is a little surprising is how the camera seems to side with Lorelei at a number of points. Perhaps most significantly, there’s the scene when Lorelei discovers that “Piggy” owns a diamond mine in Africa. From her POV, we see Piggy’s head become overlaid with a large diamond, overtly symbolizing all that Lorelei sees in him. While this may not seem terribly significant, it’s the fact that Lorelei, a woman, is not only objectifying a man, but the viewer also does so through her. We are given the point of view of a woman’s desiring gaze, seeing a man not “as he is” but as a means to an end. Lorelei does something similar after their first performance when she remarks provocatively to Dorothy that she saw a large “bulge” in Gus’ pocket, which she can’t wait to get her hands on. She then remarks that it must be a diamond ring.
On a superficial level, Dorothy is seemingly set apart from Lorelei. For one thing, she’s brunette while Lorelei is the titular blonde, already implying that she is less preferable in comparison. On another obvious level, she’s simply not Marilyn Monroe. Already in 1952, Marilyn’s iconic status was becoming firm; nothing wrong with Jane Russell, but Marilyn she was not. On top of this, Dorothy seems to carry herself in a more masculine way than Lorelei. She is less desired by men (as evidenced by Gus’ entrance into their dressing room), and she seems unaffected by the fact. She’s at least as clever as Lorelei, and she knows what she wants just as much, but she’s more willing to go and actively get it. Lorelei, on the other hand, knows how to be passive in just the right way in order to get that one rich man to come knocking on her door. When they prepare to board the ship going to France, Dorothy establishes herself as Lorelei’s chaperone. Dorothy makes it just as clear, however, that the chaperone is the one who’s allowed to have fun. She says this as she discovers that the U.S. Olympic team will be on board for the voyage. The athletes are of no interest to Lorelei, since they certainly don’t own any diamond mines. Dorothy, on the other hand, communicates plenty of interest in the strong-bodied men.
The musical number that follows shortly thereafter is staged at a pool where the men are presumably practicing. Lorelei is absent; this one belongs to Dorothy. She’s dressed in strapless black while all the male athletes surrounding her are clad only in flesh-toned swim shorts. When the men are dancing around Dorothy, at times it’s hard to tell if they’re wearing anything at all. The scene identifies Dorothy as the woman who desires the male body – and not only in the singular. She’s surrounded by strong, male bodies, and she swoons over all of them. Adding a little here and there between lyrics, she says, “Doubles, anyone? This court’s open.” So while Dorothy seems to set herself apart from Lorelei by desiring love from a man rather than riches, it turns out that Dorothy is actually interested in the male body, another means to an end. While the two women appear to be different, they are fundamentally the same. The film turns the tables on traditional males-objectifying-females and allows the opposite to take place. It’s a comedy, of course, so the idea isn’t being taken all that seriously, but it’s still present.
The film comes closest to subverting conventional male-female stereotypes by making it clear toward the end that the women really are the intelligent ones. Gus’ rich father chastises his son for pursuing such a class-less woman and accuses Lorelei of wanting Gus only for his money. Lorelei responds insistently that she actually wants Gus for his father’s money. When the father tries to rebuke Lorelei for such shallow affection, she articulates the film’s most effective point against men. She points out that any man wants his daughter to marry a financially secure man, for her own safety and comfort in life. Furthermore, no man is ever attacked for wanting to marry a beautiful woman, so why can’t a woman want to marry a wealthy man? Each has his/her commodity in the exchange; each has something to offer the other. The point is well made and silences Gus’ father, although it officially removes the notion of “true love” from the film entirely. Lorelei is the proverbial gold digger, and Dorothy is the sex-hungry woman. One is more “female” in traditional terms and the other more “male,” but nothing particularly negative can be said about them that can’t be said at some level about men, too.
In the end, Hawks gives an expected wink to the suggestion present throughout the film of the two women actually desiring one another. In the early dressing room scene, Lorelei tells Dorothy that she and Gus are getting married. Dorothy responds incredulously, “To each other?” Dorothy, who knows Lorelei through and through, find the idea of Lorelei marrying Gus rather ridiculous and possibly hurtful. On the trans-Atlantic cruise, Dorothy is often seen spying on Lorelei and other men – usually Gus or Piggie. Finally, the concluding shot of the film at the double wedding features Dorothy and Lorelei in the middle of the aisle with their grooms on either side of them. The camera zooms in just enough to cut the men out of the frame and ends with the two women smiling at each other. Certainly, the two women have gotten what they set out for. Certainly, it’s a cute way to end the film. But it’s also suggestive that the two women can’t let go of one another, and the fact that it’s suggested front and center at a wedding at least continues Hawks’ pattern of homoerotic hints, if not more than that. In the end it seems unlikely that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes actually subverts traditional cinema, at least in Mulveyan terms. The film is set up for the visual pleasure of male viewers, even if it toys with flipping traditional notions on their heads. In a statement about the film, Hawks himself noted that he had the women continue to walk up and down the stairs during dance numbers simply because the men on the set enjoyed watching them do so. The title, in addition, insinuates class elitism, racism, and sexism; as if only “gentleman” have good taste and white “blondes” are the only thing worth tasting. The fact that we’re talking about the 50s, though, means that the film deserves a lot of credit for at the very least pointing out the one-sided nature of conventional cinema and the fact that the tables can be turned.
Rear Window is a marvel. It’s called “pure cinema” at times, and unsurprisingly. They say 8½ is the best film about film ever made, but we should lighten the requirements for such explicit “film” content to qualify for the award. If Rear Window isn’t about cinema, no film ever was. Hitchcock apparently enjoyed either restricting himself to a single set for his films or having so many sets that the viewer can hardly become accustomed to one before transitioning to another. Lifeboat, Rope, Dial ‘M’ for Murder, and Rear Window may be the best examples of the single-set Hitchcock style. Then you have The 39 Steps and North By Northwest as special examples of the opposite, along with a host of other films with more conventional setting variety. The viewer in Rear Window is pretty well sutured to Jimmy Stewart’s character, confined to the apartment, and visually and aurally limited to what Jeff (Jimmy Stewart) can see and hear. This renders the viewer powerless, impotent, like Jeff, too. This is fitting if the film really is about film, or the film experience. Stuck in a theater, we’ve rather incapacitated ourselves and submitted to the handicap of needing to watch this movie and see what happens.
Hitchcock films often function well as textbook examples of film theory, but they always contain that extra element of genius that sets them apart from the mere “textbook.” This is what we have in Rear Window. The opening credits raise the blinds and give us an establishing shot of what will be, almost entirely, our view for the film, give or take a few zoom-ins and reverse shots. The raising of the blinds is tantamount to drawing the curtains in a theater before said credits start rolling. It’s the window into another world, not our own; the look of the voyeurs (read: cinematic spectators) into the lives of those we’ve never met into a universe from which we’re comfortably detached – or are we?
Following the establishing shot, there’s Jeff sitting there all pathetic and lame. Apparently ancient Greek mythology symbolized castration with an amputated leg, so Jeff’s cast aptly illustrates the impotence that defines him throughout the film. Constantly in this film, especially at the beginning, other characters talk over him as he struggles to get a word in edgewise. This is most often the case with Lisa (Grace Kelly) and Stella his nurse. Rendered incapacitated by his own foolish willingness to stand on a racetrack and take photos, Jeff is now at the mercy of the women who are willing to help him along his road to recovery. He’s only along for the ride, it seems, as they tell him when to get up, what to eat, what not to look at, and (indirectly) when to shut up.
Hitchcock fittingly includes a character immediately across the apartment courtyard of a young woman – “Miss Torso” – who practices her dance moves while scantily clad. She often grabs Jeff’s attention, and therefore also the attention of the viewer. We are stuck seeing, for the most part, only what Jeff sees. We’re even given facial and aural cues to react to the scenes the way he reacts to them, whether it’s a reaction of curiosity, disgust, fear, suspense, happiness, or pleasure. Only at one point does Jeff seem embarrassed by what he sees: when the newlywed couple moves into their new homestead and embraces, just before they (and they only) have the sense to drop their blinds and withhold the view of onlookers. Miss Torso is an appropriate inclusion, since the very idea of the peeping tom brings such an image quickly to mind. There is little or not narrative necessity for her, but immense thematic necessity. In case the viewer ever thinks to excuse Jeff’s voyeurism (and that of the spectator), there is this reminder that such looking is fundamentally one-way. It is for the pleasure of the looker and not the one looked-at. The looker is typically a “he” and the looked at a “she.” Only when the object of the gaze is a male (which ends up being the case in Rear Window) is there a revenge, a return of the gaze. The male looker can safely look at the passive female object without fear of the returned look.
This, however, is one place where Hitchcock shies away from the textbook. Enter Grace Kelly, whose first appearance in this film is dream-like, ethereal, surreal. She moves straight into Jeff’s view before Jeff’s eyes are quite opened. So as she moves simultaneously into the film spectator’s view, she appears a little hazy and overwhelming, an image of objective perfection, to-be-looked-at-ness (à la Mulvey) and to-be-desired-ness. Lisa (Kelly) tries again and again to seduce Jeff, but Jeff’s impotence prevents her success. The tables are turned here; instead of the male agent desiring the woman, things are reversed. Jeff is castrated and without true desire. With his manhood constrained, his desire must be mediated through an image, through proxy. Lisa represents a threat to his masculinity by desiring him. At the moments of what should be maximum romance, Jeff is distracted by wondering about the action across the courtyard. What about Thorwald’s wife? Where is she? Etc.
It’s Lisa who draws the most explicit attention not only to the look, the (fe)male gaze, but also to the cinematic image and its correlation within the diegesis of Rear Window. As she tires of Jeff looking out the window rather than at her, she at one point drops all the shades and tells him, “Show’s over for tonight.” She then lifts up an impressive piece of lingerie (especially for the 50s) and says to him, “A preview of coming attractions.” A fade-out and fade-in later, she’s wearing the outfit while posing, allowing the door frame to contain her like the image she wants to be. This is the modern woman, Hitchcock seems to imply. She may the the object of the male gaze, she may be the looked-at one, but she chooses it to be so. She wields the power that only women can wield and holds it over a powerless man. Lisa’s job, after all, is to wear swanky outfits the designers give her and be seen in them. She wallows in her position, a position that intimidates and, really, terrifies Jeff. When she proposes to him that he stop traveling the world and get an office in New York, he scoffs at the idea. He shifts into a defensive mode, arguing how ridiculous it would be for him in his safari boots and a three-day beard to walk down Park Avenue, or for her in her high heels to cross the Sahara (in so many words). She is always on the calm offensive; Jeff is always on the insecure defensive.
Probably at no point is Jeff’s impotence better seen – and better equated in the cinematic experience – than when Lisa is being accosted by Thorwall in Thorwall’s apartment. Jeff sits in his wheelchair writhing and squirming, asking his nurse desperately, “Stella, what do we do?!” while he grabs at his own neck and panics. He is truly handicapped, truly stuck in his chair and unable to reach across the range of his view into the action he witnesses and intervene. (This should sound a little like the experience of watching a film.) Hitchcock, who by this point has already related the premise of Rear Window explicitly with watching a show, equates Jeff’s helpless feeling of voyeurism with that of the audience watching Jeff. The film audience, like Jeff, is punished for vicarious pleasure; visual enjoyment by means of cheating. With cinema, at least, the images are meant for our eyes, while those Jeff witnesses were not.
The film’s conclusion couldn’t more securely set these ideas into stone. After Jeff falls out of his window (in a bit of poetic justice, perhaps), Lisa comes to his aid and cradles him in a maternal manner. Instead of the classic pose in which the hero holds his woman, here the heroine holds her boy. A subsequent shot shows that Jeff is doubly castrated, now with a fresh cast on his already-broken leg in addition to a cast on the other leg. Nearby at the window seat is Lisa. We first see her looking at a National Geographic magazine (or something like it), implying that perhaps she has changed to suit herself to Jeff’s preferences. She is, after all, wearing pants rather than a dress or skirt (or lingerie) for the first time in the film. She drops the magazine quickly, though, and picks up a copy of Bazaar, confirming that she not only has two functioning legs but continues to remain steadfast in her womanhood. Whatever it is she has going is working, while Jeff’s traditional masculinity is apparently outmoded in the modern world and bound for failure.
The Virgin Spring was part one of an epic triple-feature the other day. First was this one, sadly on an iPod Touch. Second was Rear Window from a DVD projected onto a full-size cinema screen. Third was Yojimbo in a theater from a 35 mm print. While the quality of the content started high and stayed there, the quality of the presentation only improved. Of the three, Bergman’s film is the most traumatic to the viewer. Hitchcock gives suspense as only he can do and Kurosawa presents the archetype of the samurai film, but Bergman wrestles with pain, suffering, and death – existence in darkness when God has promised light. Incidentally, Bergman later wrote that The Virgin Spring was pure Kurosawa and almost completely inspired by a Japanese style. This might not strike the viewer while watching The Virgin Spring, but in retrospect it makes sense.
There are the believers and the heathens in this film; Christianity and the occult. They coexist but one represses the other. This is a biblical parable, really, combining Cain and Abel with Jacob and Esau but this time as sisters. Jealousy and resentment reign between siblings, which leads to murder. Bergman is remarkably gracious to all his characters, including the sisters. The viewer sympathizes with both and is disgusted by both. The older sister, the one who worships a pagan deity, is defined by jealousy toward her younger, prettier sister who is the favorite of both parents. Clearly her feelings are at least natural if not justified. The younger sister is rather repulsive as a person until her safety is compromised by the older one, and she finds herself between two sex-starved forest men miles away from home.
Bergman’s view of the rapists is most worthy of note. Animals of the worst sort, criminals who stoop to the lowest of lows by raping and murdering a young and unprotected girl, Bergman nevertheless refuses viewers the pleasure of a simple condemnation even while depicting the act in all of its extreme horror and ugliness. As no character is morally perfect in the film, so also is no character destitute of humanity. Before, during, and after the rape the men are seen hesitating, self-loathing, and even regretting. Lost and confused, they do what their sin nature (as the film itself insists) impels them to do. Without the proper opportunity to live in a better world, it seems, they are enslaved to their own devices. But Bergman does not so simply excuse their evil. The older sister, after all, is from the other world, but she is an outcast within it. Mistreated though she is, she still belongs to a family with material possessions, a home, and a community. By staging and allowing the rape, she is complicit with the rapists, crossing class boundaries and illustrating the universal nature of evil. If anyone is “good” in this film, it is the boy who belongs to the forest men. He is powerless, however, to alter the course of events or speak the truth of what has happened. He is a mute; innocence silenced by evil.
The father’s revenge, repentance, and vow all come in quick succession and set him apart from more evil characters only on account of his ultimate submission. The Bergman character par excellence, he encounters God, encounters evil, and through the latter is forced to encounter God more fully than he had ever desired or intended. Unlike most Bergman characters, however, he receives a response from the Almighty. The response is one of hope, and it’s been criticized for heavy-handed symbolism; perhaps so, perhaps not (although accusing Bergman of too much symbolism seems tantamount to accusing Hitchcock of too much suspense or Godard of too much playfulness). Bergman’s cinematic mode here and elsewhere is not transcendental but existentialist. His characters clash with God and wrestle with his apparent absence, but Bergman’s filmic style is securely grounded in his characters – their dilemmas, their struggles, etc. So when the virgin spring erupts, it is less a theophany (such that we find in the films of Kieslowski, for instance) and more inner, more subjective, the visible fruit of human hope even in death.
A kind of love-child of Buñuel and Leone with more biblical and religious symbolism than one knows what to do with, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s surrealist Western El Topo follows a cowboy/priest with a sacred calling on a blood-soaked crusade to rescue and ravage the children of men along with their women to liberate the oppressed and celebrate the grotesque in all its gnarley forms without failing to achieve as a film something either sublime or just subliminal, always faithful to itself but less than preoccupied with viewer accessibility.
These old Woody Allen films are pretty delightful: intelligent slapstick overflowing with enough word plays and sight gags that the viewer might do well to hit “pause” while laughing so as not to miss another doozy. Woody seems to thrive on social commentary after being ripped out of his natural habitat, which somehow puts him in his element. In Sleeper, this happened when cryogenic preservation brought him into the distant future. Before Sleeper, here in Bananas, it happens after being sort-of kidnapped by revolutionary rebels in the socialistic/fascist nation of “San Marcos.” One of the best bits from Sleeper and one of the best from Bananas both poke wonderful fun at the phenomenon of sports, which seems to have been one of Woody’s big targets when he was a bit younger. (Now, consider how seriously he takes tennis as an existential illustration in Match Point.) Bananas begins with sportscasters, one of whom is the real Howard Cosell, offering sports commentary on the overthrow of San Marcos’ government through the assassination of its president. Cosell even attempts to interview the fallen leader and capture his dying words while gasping for breath on the steps of the country’s government seat. What may be largely a comedy routine still manages to carry biting ramifications on the nature of the news media, pretentiously neutral even in the most obvious of crises, sensationalizing the tragic and emptying the grave of all its gravity. (Sleeper‘s comment on sports takes place when a futuristic historian asks Woody’s character to make sense of a sports broadcast, guessing that the footage must have been used to punish society’s most grievous criminals. Woody replies, of course, with, “Yes. Yes, that’s exactly what that was.”
It’s more than just a commentary on sports and the media, though. Perhaps more than that, it seems to satirize the spectacle-ization of the “other,” the “third-world,” or just “them.” There’s always something funny about revolutions, as Woody Allen knows well. Can’t recall him ever specifically mocking the French Revolution, for example, but he may as well have. But what’s funny about the French Revolution is different from what’s funny about the Cuban or Argentinian revolutions. With the latter, North Americans (rather literally) look down upon still-developing nations wrestling with Marxist ideas and extreme poverty and unrest. “If only they knew what we know,” is the idea. By putting it in the context of a sports event, it becomes something for our entertainment, something trivial and ultimately insignificant. Perhaps most sadly, Bananas illustrates the effect of this outlook on the nations themselves. Needing a “legitimate” leader for their revolution, the people of San Marcos end up enlisting Allen’s character Fielding Mellish (excellent name), not unlike the Arabs enlisted T.E. Lawrence. Fielding’s own ineptitude doesn’t help the cause, broken and impotent man than he is, but at least he’s got more going for him than the revolutionaries. For them, “Something’s missing,” but they can’t figure out what. They live a life of constant discontent just like Fielding, but they’re defined by idiotic optimism rather than Fielding’s (Allen’s) intellectual fatalism.
Some of Woody’s more self-deprecating humor now feels anything but funny now, when considered in light of his own biography. His character’s sex addiction (or something like it) reminds one of the sad and pathetic problems the real Woody has had. It must be admitted, though, that the snake bite scene in Bananas is genuinely hilarious. Woody is always above revolutions like he’s above science and sports; these are dead ends at best and steps back in the evolutionary process at worst. He is willing to sign any petition if it offers the chance to get cozy with the lady revolutionary. He’s successful in the short run, but her “something’s missing” worldview applies to her relationship with Fielding; that is, until the final consummation of the film and their relationship. At that point Howard Cosell reappears to offer a play-by-play of their romp with following interviews.
Although notorious for its narrative content and ultimately rather hopeless, The Graduate deserves points for being a remarkably funny snapshot of early twenties malaise in upper-class suburbia. Dustin Hoffman’s character Ben isn’t stricken with Antoniennui, exactly, as he’s too young too have tasted and become sick with eros. Something resembling this does take place on the film, but that would really miss its point, which is really much more akin to mass rebellion in youth, actually.
Ben rebels against every force with which he comes into contact. And given the expectations imposed upon him, especially as a supposedly straight-laced scholar-athlete in the decade of the sixties, why wouldn’t he resist? One of the first suggestions, if not the first, made to Ben in the film is from a friend of his parents at a party thrown in Ben’s honor upon his return from college. The woman tells him she bets Ben never has any problem finding young (she uses the ironic term “teenage”) girls to have fun with. Ben gives her an obligatory wink and a smile, as if to imply to the viewing audience that, whether it’s true or not, having a woman of this sort suggest the idea to Ben is a little revolting.
Herein are planted the seeds to Ben’s first rebellion. His imminent affair with Mrs. Robinson which begins later that very night, stands for everything Ben’s subset of society is against. The fact that she is his parents’ friend and the mother of the girl they’re trying to get Ben to date creates the perfect opportunity for Ben to run contrary to expectations imposed on him. It’s only once the affair turns mundane and Mrs. Robinson forbids Ben from seeing her daughter that the idea of ending the affair and initiating a more conventional dating relationship becomes appealing to Ben. When Ben takes Elaine out for the first time, she is kind and personable and Ben goes out of his way to be a jerk. Once she gets upset and offended at their date at a strip club, Ben suddenly pulls a 180, apologizing and changing his tune completely. At the film’s finale, when Elaine and Ben are in the bus pulling away from the chapel, we see the mood shift away from the storybook ending we think we’re witnessing. Their smiles fade and their excitement is dispelled. They don’t even look at one another, and the audience is left wondering if the whole runaway bride bit wasn’t just another empty act of rebellion.
There’s no reason to assume happiness in this ending, since every action Ben takes in the film is followed with him changing his mind. He’s a sixties child, disenchanted and bored with the lifestyle of his upper-class parents but out of touch with his own generation. If the audience expects the happy ending that almost takes place, then the audience becomes complicit in imposing the same kind if expectations on Ben that encourage his rebellion. Though the film sorrows in the consequences of Ben’s actions, it does not implicate him. Rather, as films in the sixties were especially good at doing, it’s the parents – their class, their lifestyle, their status quo – that the film condemns. Ben is pitied and celebrated in all his indirection and confusion. It feels at one level silly that the sixties demanded liberation of Ben’s generation from the shackles of their oppressive parents while also excusing the foolishness of youth and blaming the parents. Various cake analogies spring to mind.
In Wes Anderson’s corpus of work, The Life Aquatic may just be the archetype, the consolidation of style & theme, the compressing of all-things-Wes into one film that overwhelms and confuses the unprepared viewer. It gets less credit than anything else the director has done, and for two main reasons. First, it’s deemed excessive. That’s certainly true and could not be argued – whether it’s “bad” is another question. Second, it came out following The Royal Tenenbaums, which came out after Rushmore, which came out after Bottle Rocket. Rushmore put Wes on the map, so all the film buffs and hipsters who saw it and loved it went and rented Bottle Rocket, which they found lovable and great in its own way but not quite “there” yet. When Tenenbaums came out, everyone else who didn’t see Rushmore either realized this was something great, or they really didn’t get it. Either way, you now had three films from the same director (and co-writer) to give you a good picture of what the major style and themes were, and a sizable crowd of people who thought they were “Wes Anderson” fans. When The Life Aquatic hit theaters, there was a lot of buzz that this was the film Wes had really wanted to make before but didn’t have the budget. Haven’t checked, but if my experience was any indication, the turnout on opening weekend to The Life Aquatic was substantially more than Tenenbaums, which obviously was the most popular film of the first three. People went to see The Life Aquatic expecting to laugh and to feel a connection to the characters like they did in the previous films. Wes’ characters weren’t always easy to love, exactly, but they weren’t very hard to love, either. That changed with this one. Steve Zissou repelled many viewers, perhaps because he was a bit more dirty-old-man than Dignan, Max, or even Royal. You can’t really say that Bill Murray was miscast, because he’s at least as much Wes’ muse as any other actor in his troupe. Add to Steve a supporting cast of characters that somehow seemed very “supporting” (unlike the ensemble of Tenenbaums), and an intense concentration Wes’ themes and style, and you’ve got a theater full of disappointed and rather nauseous viewers.
This nausea is easy to understand. To keep it in terms of “concentration” and budget constraints, imagine being too poor to serve your guests pure orange juice, so you water it down in order to spread it out and at least serve something. As you can afford it more, you water it down less. Then, in one fell swoop, you can afford to serve your guests the real thing. They may not be ready for it, and it may be too strong for them. Something like this happened with the reception of The Life Aquatic, although of course the illustration breaks down at a certain point. Still, Wes’ “authorship,” if it can be put that way, was simply not as strong in Bottle Rocket as it came to be in The Life Aquatic. James L. Brooks’ involvement with getting Bottle Rocket made led to him writing in new parts of the script, cutting parts out, and the like. (The hilarious line about how an “asshole like Bob can have such a great kitchen” – that’s Jim Brooks, not Wes Anderson.) By the time of The Life Aquatic, Wes grew out his hair, dappered himself up, and spent a lot of studio dough to create what probably appeared to be a comedy-action film when in fact it didn’t follow any formula other than Wes’ own. This isn’t to be overly congratulatory to him, since even his critics are quick to point out that it’s his distinctive, repetitive, overdone style that they find so tiresome. No one accuses him of being unoriginal, but of being all too singular, and being stuck in his own rut.
Now, to the themes. Death makes hardly an appearance or even a suggestion in Bottle Rocket. By Rushmore, Max observes to Miss Cross, “So we both have dead people in our families.” No one dies in the film, but everything about the film is dedicated, in word and deed to fallen loved ones. Time is spent at a cemetery, and Max dedicates his magnum opus at the film’s end to his late mother and the late “Edward Appleby, a friend of a friend.” Characters in Tenenbaums make a few visits to a cemetery to visit fallen loved ones – again, a wife and also a wife/mother – until the film’s end when we witness a silent graveside service with only a gun salute. Even Buckley, the dog, dies, and his death presents opportunity for Royal to redeem himself in the eyes of Chas by saving Chas’ two boys from an oncoming car. (Never mind the fact that Royal hilariously endangered these grandsons of his earlier in a montage of running across the street during heavy traffic.) Richie’s suicide attempt is often cited as the most striking and overwhelming scene in the film. The soundtrack of Elliott Smith’s Needle in the Hay turned out to be sadly fitting.
The Life Aquatic is arguably even more concerned with death than the previous films. The film begins with a death, ends with a death, and is peppered throughout with little deaths. Esteban’s early demise at sea is the catalyst for Steve’s quest to find and destroy the jaguar shark. Ned’s death toward the end is, along with the Indian boy’s death in The Darjeeling Limited, the rawest death in Wes Anderson’s films. Royal’s death scene is poetic and beautiful, and most of the other deaths don’t occur within the film’s diegetic timeline. (Incidentally, if Ned’s death isn’t a nod to Manuel’s death in Captains Courageous, that’s quite a coincidence.) Earlier in The Life Aquatic, Steve shoots and kills one of the pirates. The crew attempts to hold a burial service for the man with no regard for his actions, though they are interrupted by Hennessey’s ship arriving and toss the body over the other side. (If this act doesn’t remind one of the rat’s death in Fantastic Mr. Fox – “But in the end he’s just another dead rat in a garbage dumpster behind a Chinese restaurant.”) Ned shows up near the beginning to introduce himself to Steve as his possible son and inform Steve that the woman who connects them died. Steve abruptly pauses his conversation with Ned and walks up to the top of the ship to smoke a cigarette. David Bowie explodes onto the soundtrack and we get a tracking shot of Steve’s hike replete with a slow-motion movement as he drops his hand drops down from his face after a hit on the cigarette. This is the death moment of Steve’s former lover. It’s late, since he only just found out, but Anderson’s characters always need a negotiation, a ritual to get them through death. These scenes always include at least some of the following: slow-motion, amplified musical soundtrack, tracking shot, close-up, and an absence of dialogue.
Death becomes more and more a fact of life for Steve, whose child-like nature rebels against it. When he arrives on the island (peninsula?) to meet up with his wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston, the mother figure in Wes Anderson films), she informs him callously that his cat died. Steve is clearly upset, just as much that his cat died as at Eleanor’s careless way of telling him about it. Ned asks Steve what kind of cat it was, attempting to initiate an informal memorial. Steve’s bitterness prompts the reply, “Who gives a shit?…I think it was a tabby.” Here Steve corrects himself, momentarily angry at the messenger before giving the message itself its due. More significantly, prior to each screening for Steve’s two-part film shown within The Life Aquatic (and also entitled The Life Aquatic, in case anyone doubts the film’s self-reflexivity), his number one man dies. First it’s Esteban, and his death is featured as the primary event in the film. When part two is screened at the finale, it’s Ned’s death that punctuates the documentary.
The supposed “documentary” nature of Steve’s films gets some direct attention in the film and indirectly relates to the theme of death. During a one-on-one interview below deck of the Belafonte, Jane (Cate Blanchett), the British reporter who accompanies the crew on its voyage, accuses Steve’s film’s of being “fake.” Jane’s first question in the interview so disappoints Steve that his response is, “I thought this was supposed to be a puff piece.” Always the one to take things as personally as possible, Steve responds to the suggestion that his films are fake by pointing his pistol in Jane’s face and asking, “Does this seem fake?” He then asks Jane if it seemed fake when Esteban was eaten by a shark. His response is that of a child; he is oblivious to the possibility that anything in his films is less than completely authentic. The correlation between Steve as a filmmaker and Wes Anderson himself is too obvious to be denied. Anderson’s world is artificial, but only in a strictly superficial sense. That is to say, only the façade is “fake”; the heart of the films is “realist” to the highest degree just like Steve Zissou’s films. Steve’s criticism of Jane the reporter is Anderson’s criticism of the non-discerning critic/viewer: don’t be distracted by the surfaces of things. These films are no more “fake” than a child’s imagination is fake. The substance is fully real if the glossy finish appears disingenuous. And by creating a filmmaking protagonist such as Steve, who is more of a child than most children, Anderson arguably disarms his own critics who have accused him of being “pretentious.”
This is an aside, but the accusation that Anderson’s films are “pretentious” could hardly be more ironic. The suggestion deserves a few responses. First, the idea behind “pretense” is that of “pretending” to be that which one is not. The main characters in Anderson’s films have wild imaginations and try desperately – pretend, even – to be that which they are not naturally gifted to be. Their constant failures at one level brings them back repeatedly to all that they have in life: one another. Dignan stinks at being a crook, but at the end of the film, while basking in a glow that could come from nowhere but his own heart, he tells his friends visiting him at prison, “We did it, though, didn’t we?” His question is rhetorical, the answer in his mind clearly a resounding “Yes!” Second, all of Anderson’s protagonists are nothing more – or less – than children. To accuse Anderson of being pretentious is similar to accusing a child of pretense for constructing a tunnel of cardboard boxes in his garage and proclaiming that he is a spelunker. In the child’s world, he is a spelunker. In Anderson’s world, he’s a film director and nothing more. His characters live out his own fantasies, but they fail time and again. One of Max’s ridiculous plays (which are anything but creative – they all re-stage classic movies) ends with him taking a bow with a bloody nose after getting beaten up by one of his actors. Finally, the “pretense” allegation fails to take into account Anderson’s humor. Comedy hardly takes a break in his films, and when it does it’s brief and for an important reason. Anderson is notorious for his perfectionism in making movies. He takes the films very seriously so that the films don’t take themselves seriously.
Rabbit trail over. The foreign woman is here in The Life Aquatic, as she is in all of Anderson’s films. Quick rundown: in Bottle Rocket, there’s Inez, Anthony’s Hispanic love interest who can’t speak English through most of the film. Any other women in the film? Really, only the blonde sorority sister at Bob’s house who is defined by idiocy of the most painful sort. Already in the first film, we know that Anderson has nothing against women, just typical American ones. In Rushmore there’s Miss Cross, who is British. Margaret Yang becomes Max’s friend/girlfriend by the end. She’s American, to be sure, but not your standard white-girl American. When the idea of the “foreign woman” is taken beyond ethnic connotations to include the definition of “distance,” we can begin to include almost all the rest of Anderson’s female characters. So in Rushmore, Max’s mother would qualify, having died while Max was only seven years old. Herman Blume’s wife gets little attention in the film, since she is in the process of suing Herman for divorce. In Tenenbaums, Chas’ wife has died a year before the film’s narrative begins. Royal visits his mother’s grave a couple times, emphasizing distance via death. Margot Tenenbaum, as Royal often points out, is adopted. Then there’s Etheline, who probably comes closest in Anderson’s films to breaking the mold of the foreign woman. Still, if one considers the film as primarily occurring from Royal’s point of view, then Etheline is the estranged wife. Skipping ahead, Peter in The Darjeeling Limited is married to a British woman. Jack’s love interest is defined by her distance from him, and the Indian woman he meets on the train is…Indian. Above all in the film, the mother of the brothers (Anjelica Huston, in her third consecutive Anderson film as a maternal figure) has left her family and her world for missionary work in India. When the boys finally catch up to her, she flees from them. (For the sake of space, Fantastic Mr. Fox will be omitted here, although the pattern persists there.)
So in The Life Aquatic, Jane is a British reporter and Eleanor again becomes an estranged wife. (In fact, she’s an estranged wife twice over, having been married to Alistair before Steve.) Steve’s former lover, who is also Ned’s mother, died prior to the film’s beginning. The only female crew member, Anne-Marie, plays an odd and decidedly distant character by being almost perpetually topless. Her casual undress keeps her separated from the male crew members in nearly every shot of her. Whether this continuous theme of the distant woman pierces into (or stems from) the psychology of Wes Anderson’s own experience is hard to say, but it certainly confirms that his movies are male movies. They are not misogynistic; rather, they reflect a loss of the maternal repeatedly. Rushmore, Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic, and The Darjeeling Limited all are heavily concerned with the absence of the mother and the attempt to replace her with a maternal or romantic figure. Ned’s fascination with Jane revolves in part around her pregnancy. Assuming the validity of the Oedipus complex, Ned’s romance with the pregnant Jane and fist fight with Steve (his potential father) embody the archetypal male character in Wes Anderson’s films.
That’s a little too cynical, however; or at least too cynical for Anderson. Though conflict exists between father-figures and son-figures, it’s only to build narrative tension leading up to a final (re)connection. Mr. Henry in Bottle Rocket notwithstanding, Rushmore, Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic, and Fantastic Mr. Fox all end with a sort of resolution to the father-son problems presented in them. (The early death of the father in The Darjeeling Limited makes that film a necessary exception.) It’s just before Ned’s death that he and Steve discuss their first correspondence years earlier. As if to make up for lost time, this memory they share, and the mementos they kept ever since, connect them and compensate for years of lost connection. Ned dies, but Klaus’ nephew Werner steps in as a substitute for the son-figure for Steve. Steve’s acceptance of Werner (placing him on his shoulders while descending the steps) may be symbolism just as overt but just as powerful as the end loss of baggage concluding The Darjeeling Limited.
This has become quite fractured due to the bit-by-bit writing of these paragraphs. For now, this’ll do. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou: an excuse to ramble about themes prevalent in all of Wes Anderson’s films.
Famous and infamous, this is really a remarkably adept film from a technical point of view. While working with other Verhoeven material on the day job (namely RoboCop), it seemed reasonable to sample more of his stuff…at least within reason. Basic Instinct, as everyone on the planet has noted, features the ultimate contemporary femme fatale; “ultimate,” at least in a certain sense. Sharon Stone as Catherine is no Laura, no Gilda. She’s fierce and active rather than passively desired. Desire emanates from her while also arousing it in others, and she’s the one who punishes (or seems to punish?) the desiring other. The viewer of course not “identified” or “engaged” with her, so it’s still appropriate to call her the femme fatale. Words are putty to her, just like the dames of noir, but she’s got what they hain’t: a double-major in psychology and English literature from Berkeley. On this note, must mention that this was a travel viewing while commuting from south Silicon Valley into San Francisco, most fittingly. While passing Stanford on the way up, the good and upright psych prof from Stanford in the film made his appearance, condemning at least one of the two Berkeley grads in the film. (Of course, they are women, and the Stanford prof is a dude.) Am wondering how this film was received in the East Bay.
It’s another neo-noir, then, one that differs more quantitatively than qualitatively from the older stuff, or at least from its neo-noir contemporaries. The monstrous feminine make a strong appearance here, replete with the male fear of castration and what’s truly terrifying: a woman who refuses to be bound by her “lack.” She is the v. dentata, as they say. Catherine makes a power play in exactly this sense during the famous interrogation scene, taking the offensive and castrating all the cops in the room. In so doing, there is no longer law. She usurps the paternalistic, patriarchal authority by wielding the weapon of sexuality. What “order” there was in Nick’s life is annihilated by Catherine. He had quick drinking and quit smoking, and was finishing up his obligatory psychiatric evaluation (with his psychiatrist ex) following another shooting that left someone else dead by Nick’s hand. When Catherine proclaims that Nick’s cigarette addiction will return, he appears immediately flustered at the revelation, which acts more as a prophecy. What she says will come to pass, whether spoken or written.
Basic Instinct is rather the precursor to its feminist response, Jane Campion’s later In The Cut. In the latter film, we’re now identified with the woman rather than the male cop, and now it’s the male cop who’s in question as the possible murderer. The woman (Meg Ryan’s character Frannie) is still into literature – she’s an English teacher, able to command authority through language as well as through sexuality. Like Catherine in Basic Instinct, there are times when Frannie wants to dominate and times when she wants to be dominated – she really is the female equivalent of Michael Douglas’ character Nick in Basic Instinct. Frannie’s uncertainty mirrors Nick’s, yet each of them moves forward in their respective relationships with could-be killers, putting themselves in the most compromising situations just for the rush. Because this is traditionally a male role, it makes sense that it’s Nick who, in Basic Instinct, takes the big risk to be with a dangerous woman. It’s hard to tell if Nick desires danger itself or isn’t ultimately capable of being threatened by a women. The tables turn in In The Cut, with Frannie inching herself closer to a potentially dangerous character and creating increased suspense for the patriarchal viewer by virtue of Frannie’s status as a “woman,” i.e. powerless character. Whereas Verhoeven arguably perpetuates this sort of traditional stereotype in his audience, Campion challenges and overturns it.
It’s fascinating that Basic Instinct became, at one point at least, something of a manifesto for feminists. Certainly the character of Catherine wields power here, but she is utterly dehumanized. Frannie in In The Cut is quite human, though her femininity is of a decidedly different sort than the typical. Women in Basic Instinct are all frightening, and all because of their sexuality. Beth, Nick’s ex, hides past secrets of illicit affairs (mostly with other women) and is kept at arm’s length from the viewer and from Nick by virtue of her education and status as a psychiatrist (i.e. master of the mind). We are kept in the dark along with Nick as to Beth’s background. She is constantly implicated in foolish actions that compromise Nick’s ability to investigate the murders and in the murders themselves. Roxy, Catherine’s girl-toy, is anything but human in this film. She is nothing more than a sexual droid that perpetuates the audience’s fear of women. Basic Instinct took a bad rap from the lesbian community, and rightly so, but it should have taken more of a beating from the larger community of women in general, despite the fact that it’s still an impressive technical achievement within traditional boundaries – practically Hitchcockian, even.