Posts Tagged ‘Feminist Interpretation


A Fantastic Fear of Everything


I’m reading Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film by Carol Clover, a seminal (in every sense of the word) analysis of the genre published in the early 90s that looks at the way gender and fear of gender plays out in the horror movies of the 70s and 80s. It’s great, and manages (so far, anyway), the delicate task of acknowledging both the obvious subtext playing out in the movies AND the explicit text that is often disregarded or explained away as merely a thin cover for the subtext. She talks about, for example, the way slasher movies use the female Last Girl to stand in for an adolescent male audience but also how that decision to make the protagonist female is meaningful on a literal level. She also talks about medieval notions of slippery gender, which is catnip to me.

Anyway. Last night we watched A Fantastic Fear of Everything, a 2012 flick starring Simon Pegg, and it’s an interesting parallel to what Clover discusses. The second chapter of MW&C talks about possession movies, and how they are generically split into two parts: the female possessed who is narratively underdeveloped and the male in crisis who is forced to confront his own deficient or overdeveloped masculinity due to the possession. Clover says that the female possession, which is usually manifested as a hysterical femininity or a cross-gender machoness, is necessary to allow the man to embrace behaviors that would otherwise be coded as feminine — she is thrust beyond the pale to open the space up for him, emotionally speaking. Typically, in her analysis, the man starts the film off as emotionally closed, and it is the job of the horror to force him open — sometimes cathartically (as in Witchboard), and sometimes destructively (as in The Exorcist).

A Fantastic Fear of Everything, though, collapses the two into one character, Jack, played by Simon Pegg, who starts the movie off in the normally feminine space of the possessed (in this case by a crippling paranoia and agoraphobia triggered by an overdose of Victorian murder research) and as the emotionally shuttered man in crisis: Jack was a successful children’s author, but he resents that part of his career, which he blames for ruining his marriage, and wants to write a more properly masculine series of television shows about Victorian bloodshed called Decades of Death.


Jack and Sangeet

The movie plays with his gender throughout: he spends the first major section of the movie in a short robe that reads like a dress from a distance, his hair long and ragged, twitching and shrieking at every little noise. The image at the top is a good example — his knees are even kept decorously together, as a proper lady should keep them! At the end of the movie, after having been harrowed first by a series of domestic catastrophes, then by a traumatic visit to a laundromat, then finally by an actual serial killer with abandonment issues similar to his own, he resolves the major conflicts plaguing him, recognizes how traumatized he was by the loss of his mother, and embraces the unmasculine role of children’s author. At this point his voice deepens, his hair is cropped short, and he is rewarded with a relationship with the attractive women he was kidnapped with; he has relinquished his toxic obsession with masculinity and shed his destructive femininity. His psychiatrist friend, in a bit of metacommentary, congratulates him on how his latest book synthesizes Freudian and Jungian themes in one hedgehog. Despite his newfound gender identity, he is still threatened by relapse, though — his literary agent introduces him to a creepy, ambiguously queer American who is interested in producing Decades of Death (he chides Jack for missing an earlier meeting with him, calling him a “naughty boy,” and claws at the air suggestively), and Jack is washed with the old paranoia, nearly fainting, until his new girlfriend rescues him, both from the literal faint AND from the subtextual gender panic. Jack promises the American to “think about it” and runs away into the credit sequence with her, masculinity redeemed.



Yes Madam, Sir


The IFC Center is hosting Docuweeks in NYC this month, which is a festival of documentary films from all over the world which are screened here and in Los Angeles to put them in the running for the Oscars. This weekend I went to see Yes Madam, Sir, profile of Kiran Bedi, India’s first female police officer. After refusing time and time again to compromise with a corrupt, networking/politically-based system, Bedi is dumped in numerous unwanted, nightmare positions and manages to make some powerful reforms in a notoriously ill-run prison she oversees and at a police academy which has been allowed to be lax in its discipline and training regimen before her arrival. It is a very interesting portrait of a strong, passionate woman who has always pursued what she felt was best. While there are obviously some very meaningful feminist components to the film, I appreciated the fact that the movie does not hit you over the head with them and that it realistically portrayed the difficult choices many ambitious, principled women must make as they seek success in a patriarchal world.

While watching the film I couldn’t help making comparisons between Kiran Bedi’s life and my mother’s. She is a similarly strong-willed, ambitious woman who started out (at least during my lifetime) as an LDS housewife and went on to go to a prestigious law school and fulfillment in her career. I think one thing that struck me during the movie was how, beyond the nobility of relentlessly sticking to her moral code, there are deeper reasons why Bedi’s opinions had to be so firm and her assertiveness so unbreakable. For many women, particularly women who are trying to make progress in a very male-dominated field, compromise is not an option. While certain compromises might soften you in the eyes of some, they will ultimately be unforgivable to those who judge women much more harshly and will use any opportunity to undermine their authority and strength.

A significant subplot in the film revolves around Bedi’s relationship with her daughter and other members of her family. As is common for so many strong women, it seems like Bedi has been forced to neglect her family as she pursued a larger agenda for the betterment of her country. Toward the end, you can see very clearly both how painful it’s been for her daughter to grow up without having her mother as much as she wanted, but also how much respect she has for her mother and how she would not have wanted her to back down from the numerous fights she found herself in. I feel the same way about my mom. Whatever sacrifices my dad and I made to move with her to law school were very much worth it to see my mom succeed where others said she would fail. I’ve learned so much from what my mom went through and it makes me want to pursue my career with the same drive and also, just be myself in a way I don’t know I would have the courage to otherwise. It is great to see such a fascinating woman portrayed with real depth and insight into what she faced along the way and I hope this film will have a chance for wider distribution in the near future.


The Double Life of Veronique


Yesterday, I watched The Double Life of Veronique, which is actually the first movie I’ve seen by much-lauded director, Krzysztof Kieslowski. It is a really interesting movie which is a hybrid of several different genres, in addition to experimenting with character, narrative, and cinematography. It’s probably the most difficult movie to write about that I’ve reviewed so far because it is constructed almost like a poem, with so many of the images in the film bearing a lot of intuitive and emotional weight. This movie is one of those rare films where the director handles everything delicately enough, with enough grace, that the images take on a life of their own for the individual viewer. A wide range of shadings and interpretations can be taken from each one, an effect he apparently created deliberately since he tinkered with many different versions of the film before the final cut.

Kieslowski uses a filter over the lens for most of the film and the color palette of the scenes alternates between warm, autumnal tones and an eerie, absinthe green tint which also contributes to a certain unsettled quality, as well as an overall magical realism to the world around the main characters. When the movie begins, it feels unmistakably like a horror movie. The overpowering charm and naive sensuality of the heroine, Polish Weronika, puts us on guard because her joy feels so open, a loose and vulnerable thing. Whenever the camera lingers too long over perfection, it is a cue to the audience that something is wrong underneath the beautiful scene on the screen. As the movie shifts to focus on French Veronique, however, it turns into a romantic mystery of sorts (the kind which Amelie is surely greatly indebted to, not to mention the striking likeness between Irene Jacob and Audrey Tatou). Yet, even though there is much less tension around Veronique’s narrative, we are haunted by her supernatural similarities to Weronika.

As flowery as it may sound, the movie gradually insinuates itself into your consciousness like curls of smoke and stirs the place where the most-difficult-to-describe feelings dwell. It draws out a kind of spiritual deja vu, which you might feel in an unexpected moment of startling coincidence or the sudden recognition a pattern in the unfolding of events. Moments like this can make the world around you suddenly seem alive and all too conscious in a way that is both exciting and scary. The movie genuinely evokes that tension to very dramatic effect, causing the viewer to have an emotional response to concepts that would be fairly abstract and intellectual when broken down on a philosophical level. It is very much a magical movie in that sense and one that I would definitely recommend to anyone who has not seen it yet.

I will mention though, the feminist in me was a little disturbed by how the characters Weronika/Veronique are portrayed. They are very innocent, almost to the point of having a certain child-like quality, yet they are still intensely eroticised as well. It is hard to imagine a film heroine who is more beautiful, delicate, and alluring, almost wholly without flaw. While her character is well-developed, with a close attention to the little details of personality which make a character feel like a real person, she is also clearly a poeticized fantasy-object, an objectified muse, kept apart from the flesh-and-blood realm the rest of us live in. Because of the mystical, fairy tale quality to the entire movie, this doesn’t feel as out of place as it might in a more realistic picture. And also, I’m sure certain blanks are left in the character in order to intrigue the viewer to watch the events unfold all that more closely and further build the mystery around her.

She does seem like a sort of cypher though in some moments, or an elaborate metaphor, in a way that made me a touch uncomfortable. I felt like she was this close to being revealed as a constructed, cyborg manifestation of the director’s vision in a way which makes the viewer feel like a voyeur. Indeed, toward the end of the picture an explicit reference is made as the lead male crafts a puppet version of Weronika/Veronique and begins to craft a narrative for his upcoming novel. It definitely provokes a bit of a creepy, paternalistic feeling that troubled me, especially since it also places the viewer in such a voyeuristic position with the most intimate pieces of Weronika/Veronique’s lives exposed to our scrutiny.

There is too much reliance on traditional gendered dynamics between masculine director:feminine muse, masculine audience:feminine lead actress, subject:object. Making the same film with a male main character would almost be unfathomable, since so much of the tone of the film turns on the audience being drawn in by the romantic and sexual desirability and very feminine fragility of Weronika/Veronique. This, in turn, makes me feel unsure about what subtle, built-in undertones we are ultimately meant to take away, at least in terms of what gendered implications the movie allows.




Continuing in the cult movie vein, I saw Bound for the first time a few days ago after meaning to get around to seeing it for years. For as long as there are video stores, this is one movie you’ll always be able to find for the infamous sex appeal between Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon. Their relationship has become a classic in some lesbian circles and no doubt a favorite amongst legions of straight men. With that said, there has also been a fair amount of controversy about whether the film is a feminist-leaning subversion of traditional gender roles and heteronormativity or whether it is just another male-fantasy, lesbian-exploitation film with some clever twists on the noir genre. Honestly, I feel some ambivalence about it.

One of the things that first made me like cult movies was how much more playful they can often be about gender, race, and sexual orientation, with a deeper interest in subverting categories and spoofing Hollywood conventions than most mainstream popular films. This is a characteristic of cult films that has clearly followed through from the older, pulp classics of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s and straight through Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown and Kill Bill. This is very much present in Bound too. I am, in fact, a big fan of Jackie Brown in particular, where Pam Grier does such a great job of bringing her refreshingly three-dimensional character to life. The characters in Bound are definitely not as sensitively developed here and are more like something out of a pulp novel, like old-time lesbian classic Beebo Brinker, or a B-movie noir.

Jennifer Tilly’s Violet is a sort of Mae West, gun moll type and Gina Gershon’s Corky (ahem, I really almost couldn’t get past how ridiculous her name is) is James Dean by way of K.D. Lang. Is it over the top? Undoubtedly. Does their first sexual encounter seem pretty stilted/tawdry? Definitely. Is it still super entertaining? Pretty much. The best thing about the movie and the reason that it deserves to haunt video stores from coast to coast is that it’s a pretty cleverly written little noir, where nothing goes as planned, but the main characters still somehow manage to keep on going. In comparison to the mega-overblown scripting of the Wachowski’s next series of films, (The Matrix series), it is nice to see the little indie film they started with which wraps up so neatly and has a lot of similar lovable touches to it that have always made the Coen brothers films such masterpieces.

For another thing, SPOILER ALERT, it is really nice to see a movie where the lesbian leads get a happy ending for once, in comparison to so many of the other lesbian-themed films out there (typically the ones written by honest-to-God lesbians) which are crushingly depressing. For all its cheesiness, this movie is really fun to watch and is good for what ails you if ye olde patriarchal hegemony is getting you down.


In A Lonely Place

in a lonely placeThis weekend I also saw In a Lonely Place, directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, which is a classic noir about a reclusive screenwriter with an anger management problem and a potential murder rap haunting him. It’s an interesting bit of IMDB trivia to learn that Ray was married to Grahame at the time and they ultimately broke up during the filming of the movie. Apparently the producer was worried enough about the situation to force Gloria Grahame to sign a contract stating “my husband shall be entitled to direct, control, advise, instruct and even command my actions during the hours from 9 AM to 6 PM, every day except Sunday…I acknowledge that in every conceivable situation his will and judgment shall be considered superior to mine and shall prevail.” Grahame was also forbidden to “nag, cajole, tease or in any other feminine fashion seek to distract or influence him.” One has to wonder how much the tension between Ray and Grahame may have contributed to the tension in the film as Grahame’s character, Laurel Gray, grows more and more uneasy about her boyfriend’s violent temperament.

The script is packed full of wry, lightning-quick dialogue and there is well-balanced chemistry between Bogey and Grahame, who is more droll and less va va voom than Bacall would have been in the role. In comparison to the protagonists in so many modern movies, there is a crackling intellect about both leads here that is very enjoyable to watch. Like any noir though, the movie takes a much darker turn and does so fairly abruptly.

Although I enjoyed the movie and I do recommend it, I thought a few things might have enhanced it’s underlying themes. For one thing, I found it curious that as Bogart begins to lean toward the Mr. Hyde half of his personality, we become more distanced from his character and it is left ambiguous whether he really recognizes how inappropriate his behavior is and how scary he must be to the people around him, despite his supposed genius-level intelligence. In fact, the movie gradually shifts from following Bogart’s character to following Grahame’s character in a somewhat awkward dodge, meant to ramp up the doubts of the audience. After Bogart wounds his agent and oldest friend he only hesitantly, barely apologizes to him and he is unwilling to directly address how his erratic behavior is effecting Grahame after another major episode. I wonder how different the film would be if the narrative stuck with Bogart instead and his character more directly engaged with this demon inside himself. I was half-expecting something like this to come through in a closer view of the script Bogart is working on in the movie, but nothing like that ever actually materializes.


SPOILERS AHEAD. Apparently, in the movie’s original ending Bogart actually kills Grahame instead of almost killing her, but Ray felt that ending made the picture too bleak and Bogart’s character too monstrous. I wish that it had ended as it was originally intended because it would have brought out the full dramatic irony of Bogart’s former innocence and it would also have made more of a statement about how violence can lead to more violence and what kind of atrocities we may be capable of against our better natures depending on the circumstances.

Instead, the parting message of the film is murkier, with the ironic weight being placed on the relationship’s seemingly unnecessary demise. After seeing what happens when Bogart loses his temper, it’s hard to be satisfied by that ending. Whether or not Grahame suspected he could be capable of murder, his character did in fact seriously injure a former girlfriend and it seems inevitable that she was bound to become afraid of him when something else she did set him off later on. The audience is supposed to see this ending, where the two lovers are torn asunder, as unhappy and we’re given the oil tanker of a parting line: “I was born when he kissed me, I died when he left me, and I lived in a few weeks while he loved me.” In reality though, this ending is only truly unhappy if your sympathies rest primarily with Bogart. It actually seems like fairly good fortune to me that Grahame ultimately gets out of the relationship with her life and her freedom.

When looked at in this sense, the movie is almost a time capsule of societal attitudes of domestic violence at the time, with a subtle implication that if Grahame could have just trusted Bogart and stood by her man, things wouldn’t have escalated into the messy violent breakdown of the climax. Instead, Bogart is provoked again and again by the white lies she makes while she tries to extricate herself from the powder keg she finds herself in. From a modern perspective, it’s hard to really go along with the reading the film draws the audience into since it is so clear that most of the problems in their relationship are not about the unsolved murder hanging over their heads, but about Bogart’s inability to express his emotions in healthier ways and Grahame’s inability to talk openly with him out of fear for her own safety and her traditional feminine position in the relationship. Considering that Ray also directed several movies which perhaps more effectively questioned gender roles and sexuality like Rebel Without A Cause and Johnny Guitar, it’s interesting that Ray did not more directly question the crisis of masculinity that Bogart’s character somewhat embodies in In A Lonely Place.


500 Days of Summer


So, I wanted to review a more mainstream movie for the blog finally, so I went and saw 500 Days of Summer this weekend. A couple of the reviews I read on Metacritic made some sweeping claims about this movie being the Annie Hall of the younger generation and I will say such claims are wildly exaggerated, or at least I would hope that they are. There is a very similar tone and narrative structure in this movie to that in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind a few years ago, with much of the movie being flashes forward and backwards in time with some stylistic, music video-esque touches here and there. I’m not sure if this was an intentional knock-off or what, but I have to say Michel Gondry is better at playing with the visuals, Charlie Kaufman wrote a much more interesting, meaningful script, and Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet imbued their characters with a lot more humanity.

With that said, I think the script is probably the biggest culprit here. Zooey Deschanel was doing her quirky charming thing full force and Joseph Gordon-Levitt did such a fabulous job in Brick and The Lookout recently, I feel like he probably did what he could with the material. Many critics have been talking about how Deschanel’s character, Summer, is too much of a blank slate, but I would say both characters are underdeveloped. Due to the clever/gimmicky structuring of the narrative, I think it was an extra challenge to make the characters feel like real people and to make the interaction between the characters feel real. We don’t see a lot of personality flaws in either character and we see a lot of cutesy dates (including a weird scene almost entirely built around a product-placement that made me pretty queasy), but very few awkward moments or arguments so that you don’t really understand the sour side of the relationship. Without a fully developed negative side to the relationship, it feels like a shallow, glossy magazine version of romance and unfairly suckers the audience in a contrived way.

Additionally, SPOILER ALERT, the movie could have at least had a more realistic, powerful ending if they had left it at the scene where the movie begins, but instead they add this cheesy, ridiculous ending on that feels like a total cop-out for whatever emotional truth it was trying to dredge up. In Eternal Sunshine, you really understand both sides of the characters and their relationship with each other. You see the attraction, but also the boredom and annoyance, which are the familiar accoutrements of most long-term romantic relationships. The ending is full of pathos because you understand that the main characters can’t escape either the attraction or the inevitable discontent that develops between them and you feel the full poignancy of the can’t live with them or without them nature of love. By comparison, 500 Days of Summer doesn’t hold much water.

What really bothers me about 500 Days of Summer though has more to do with a certain type of quirky, indie-lite female character which seems to be coming up more and more in the mainstream movie business these days who is sometimes charming and sometimes cloying. She seems to be a recurring phenomena, arguably starting with Doris Day and Audrey Hepburn and morphing into the kind of character Winona Ryder used to play all the time, that Natalie Portman played in Garden State, Ellen Page played in Juno, and that Zooey Deschanel now plays all the time. I have mixed feelings about this recurring character, who on the one hand avoids the sex-bomb airhead female stereotype which so dominates the movie business and who can often be funnier and more intelligent than the traditional female lead.

I think the big difference between the versions I like and the ones I don’t is who is doing the writing. Namely, I think when there is a woman writing these characters, they often hold up a lot better than when men are writing them. For example, I think Juno was good, because for once you could see how the quirky, pluckiness was actually just the surface of a three-dimensional, though very young woman and not her whole personality. For another, she wasn’t just some fantasy girl of endless charm, she was sarcastic, self-deprecating, and whip-smart. I felt the same way about another movie, which fits the quirky label, The Waitress by Adrienne Shelly which has a black humor and sensitivity that adds up to a brilliant screenplay and a fantastic protagonist. Interestingly, the Winona Ryder characters that I liked so much when I was younger from Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael, Mermaids, and Reality Bites were also all written by women.

In contrast, Zooey Deschanel’s characters are often written by men and are so fucking sunny and one-dimensional it kind of makes you want to murder somebody. And Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State, written by leading man Zach Braff, has to be one of my least favorite female characters of all time. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues in some upcoming quirky movies whose trailers were of course shown before the screening of 500 Days of Summer that I went to, Paper Heart and Whip It.


The Beaches of Agnes


Last night I finally got the chance to see The Beaches of Agnes by Agnes Varda, which I have been absolutely dying to see since it first premiered in NY a few months ago and then immediately sold out before I even realized it was here. Varda is far and away my favorite director of all time and it was such a tremendous treat to get to not only see a new movie from her, but a stellar autobiographical one at that. It is also wonderful to see her getting some more press in the States since she’s relatively unknown to most people here and massively underrated, although her fan base has been growing a bit more since the release of a Criterion Collection box set of her work in January of last year. Her lesser works, Les Creatures, Lions Love, One Sings The Other Doesn’t, Mur Murs, Documentuer, etc. remain almost impossible to find in America, something that aggravates me to no end and I’m hopeful that this new movie may nudge some of her other works toward being re-released here.

Getting past my rambling fangirl hyperventilation, her latest film is really great. I can imagine for someone who is not familiar with her work, it may not be quite as enjoyable as it was for me, but there is still a lot to like about it even without the context. For one thing, it is a refreshing change of pace to get a window into the life and thoughts of a successful female artist in her 80’s. Plenty of movies and endless buzz and fuss are made about the big contemporary male artists, directors, writers-cum-hipster deities (Bukowski, Pollack, Warhol, Godard, Kubrick), but so few of the great female creatives ever get their due and its ironic this film comes from the artist herself. It remains all too true that unless women artists do the often messy, awkward work of glorifying themselves, few others will.

The list of women artists whose works have often focused on themselves is suspiciously long, Frida Kahlo, Cindy Sherman, and Sylvia Plath being just the tip of the iceberg. About a year ago, when I attended the “Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution” exhibition at MOMA (also available as a book, if you’re interested), it was amazing to see what a high percentage of the works incorporated images of the artists themselves. Since historically women have always been forced to play object to men’s subject, muse to their artist, a logical step in the development of many female artists has been to grapple with this paradox head-on by blurring that boundary. This was especially true during the big re-emergence of feminism when consciousness-raising was encourage so many women to question their roles and the self they wanted to choose for themselves. It’s a complicated process though. Even as women artists take control over the image of themselves that they produce, on a certain level they are still offering their image up to the gaze of the viewer which leaves it open to interpretation, titillation, appropriation, colonization, etc. At the artist’s most powerful moment of self-assertion, self-expression, self-invention, they are potentially also at their most vulnerable.

What I appreciate about The Beaches of Agnes, is how gracefully Varda remains in control while walking this line. With a tone of playfulness and aplomb, she manages to create an autobiographical account of her life and her works that both entertains and moves the viewer without being heavy-handed, narcissistic, or cringe-inducing. Instead of talking heads and old photo montages, she glues the movie together out of little stories and asides, artistic whims, silly reenactments, and movie clips with an overall effect that feels true and intimate without being overly revealing. She eschews a linear, chronological progression and focuses more on a landscape of memory with a cat glued in here, a friend or two stuck in there, and a generous sprinkling of humor. She’s edge-of-the-knife intelligent and a passionate observer of people, places, and times and you leave the movie being jealous of her colorful history. Just check out this picture of her in her youth at Cannes when Cleo from 5 to 7 debuted:

Young Agnes VardaShe is like DARING you to question her awesomeness.

Anyway, all this gushing about Agnes Varda and getting a glimpse of her inspiration for different movies makes me want to do a mini-retrospective of the rest of her works (at least the ones available in the U.S.), so be on the look-out for some other posts about her over the next few weeks.


The Tales of Hoffmann

Tales of Hoffmann

So, I realize it has been a really long time since anyone posted on this little movie blog and all of the readers are gone. I’m still watching great movies and I’m still wanting to motivate myself to write more often though, so I thought I would try to revive it again. Not sure how sustained the effort will be, but it’s worth a try.

A couple weeks ago I rented The Tales of Hoffmann by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, one of the best films from their glory period of working together. Apparently it is a favorite of both Martin Scorsese and George Romero, who used to constantly compete to rent the single copy out from their local movie rental shop in Manhattan. For a movie that’s based on an unfinished, nineteenth-century opera, it definitely packs a surprisingly powerful visual punch and draws on a lot of the best elements of the horror, fantasy, and adventure genres in weaving its spell.

The narrative is simple enough, built around a retelling of the romantic exploits of the titular main character and includes a lot of recycled bits and pieces which are suspiciously reminiscent of The Odyssey, Faust, and Dante. You’re drawn in less by the characters and the plot and more by the fantastical dreamscapes Powell and Pressburger created for each story, orchestrated in the old-time movie magic style that similarly captivates us in other, more famous musicals from this era. It’s too bad there aren’t more screencaps floating around online, because the technicolor sets and costumes are truly amazing. Here’s the only other good shot I could find:

Tales of Hoffman Screencap 2

Powell and Pressburger play off the sets through a lot of very clever cinematic tricks which heightens, and sometimes gently satirizes, the melodrama of the story.  For example, the lines on the floor in the photo above create the perfect illusion of stairs when shot from above, but are obviously painted on from the angle in the screencap. It’s certainly a movie that rewards those with sharp eyes who can catch the little details and I can see why Romero was so inspired by it, since it shows you not just the magic trick, but how the trick was done.  And the overall effect created lends the movie a very surreal air and invites the viewer to be more reflective on what’s going on at the edges of the performances and the film.

During the first story, Hoffmann shows us puppets that charmingly fool him into thinking they are alive. While watching, we are simultaneously dazzled by the display and fully aware of the foolishness of being dazzled since it’s all an elaborate illusion. To take it even deeper, while watching the movie we’re aware of how the directors manipulate all the elements before us to effect our thoughts and emotions. For once, we are conscious of the strings and tapes and shadows that allow them to get away with it. Even with that consciousness however, we still somehow take a great melancholy pleasure in the spectacle and perhaps appreciate it more than we would if it was seamless and clean like so many of the other movies we see.

My only critique of the film would be the old, niggling feminist one that seems to always tug at me. All of the female characters in the film are based on not particularly enlightened feminine archetypes. The first woman is literally a living doll (aka virgin) and the second is a courtesan literally in league with the devil (aka whore). The third woman, a frustrated singer, is more complex than the first two, but is ultimately destroyed by the choice between her ambition/career and love/domestic bliss.  And, of course, the real victim at the end of the day is Hoffmann, his hopes for true love crushed by all these goddamn, fundamentally flawed Eve types running around.

Of course, there is one slight counterbalance to all this ho hum patriarchy stuff in the form of Hoffmann’s best friend and the wisest character, Nicklaus. Although the character is obviously supposed to be male, Powell and Pressburger decided to cast the part with a female actor. This is an absolutely brilliant masterstroke in my mind since it further underscores the theme of illusion/reality for the audience, while also building a lovely sense of irony to the gender dynamics in the film.

Through the whole movie, Nicklaus is the one who sees through the women Hoffman swoons over and warns him to seek out the substance underneath the showy exterior. While Hoffman’s stories endlessly blast apart the mystique of the feminine in it’s various  incarnations, the audience’s sympathies stay most in line with Nicklaus, who becomes a true foil to the other female characters when played by a woman. In a convoluted way, the movie establishes her as embodying the hidden feminine and romantic ideal, a true friend who is loyal and wise, not to mention certainly not the kind of woman who is into the overt, performative display of  her gender.  Whether you take the implications as honest-to-god feminist or just vaguely homoerotic, it adds another layer to the film that I found really fascinating.


Rosemary’s Baby

Behold! This blog lives! Not only does it live, it has gained another member, the always elucidatory Mr. Gleicherd.  Soon we will be co-blogging a post about the new Coen Brothers movie, Burn After Reading, but for now, I thought I would review Rosemary’s Baby, which I saw for the first time last Sunday.

I’m definitely a fan of Roman Polanski’s directorial work. Despite the bizarre goings-on in his personal life, many of his films definitely open the door for a feminist reading and there is a consistent theme in his work surrounding the deep complications of gender and gender roles. Rosemary’s Baby could be read to have certain feminist interpretations. Interestingly, Polanski’s co-screenwriter Ira Levin also wrote another film considered by some to be an early feminist classic, The Stepford Wives. Ultimately though, I think Rosemary’s Baby does not have the full radical import present in some of Polanski’s other films, such as Repulsion and Knife in the Water. Beware, spoilers follow.

On one hand, there are many potentially feminist moments in the film. One of these few bright spots appears when she strikes up a friendship with another young woman living in the apartment complex early on in the film. Up to this point, the movie still has an optimistic, albeit slightly unsettled tone. The breaking of Rosemary’s tentative friendship with her neighbor when she supposedly “commits suicide” is ultimately the catalyst for the film’s first major shift into darkness, as it presents the only blatantly gory image in the whole movie and leads to the Woodhouse’s introduction to the creepy couple next door. It’s a stretch, but arguable, that losing this friendly female acquaintance was an important turning point toward the darkness Rosemary becomes fully entangled in soon after. Further, when Rosemary inherits the necklace that this woman was wearing, it represents a clear identification between her and this other woman. I believe her friend’s suicide is doing more work than foreshadowing the path Rosemary will ultimately go down in building an interesting early link between her and another woman facing similar perils.

The most notable feminist moment happens when Rosemary finally reaches out to her female friends for help after months of experiencing pain that her well-regarded, vaguely menacing physician repeatedly tells her is no big deal. The women shut her meddling husband out of the room and explain to her that she needs to listen to what her body is telling her.  As second-wave feminist catchphrases go, “listen to your body” has to be in the top ten. It is after this moment in the film when Rosemary finally gains the courage to directly go against her husband’s wishes, something that does not happen again in the movie until it is already too late. It is this fight with her husband which makes his participation in what has caused her suffering the most clear and signifies another important turning point in the film. I believe it is at this point that the audience fully believes what is happening to Rosemary is abnormal, after the slow building up of doubt before this point. Also, it is an interesting scene in the sense that her husband’s interests are clearly aligned with the male authority symbolic in the doctor’s position rather than with his wife. The fact that the audience is led to side with Rosemary in this exchange gives that feminist idea “listen to your body” a lot of subconscious weight in the minds of the viewers. Also, it is notable that at the very end, her final resort is to call one of her female friends, albeit far too late. It is crucial that she reaches out at this moment and is unable to speak with her female friend during this climactic scene, because it especially emphasizes the sense that if Rosemary had trusted in her female friends over the masculine authority symbolized by her husband and her doctor she may have been able to escape her situation.

On the other hand, this feminist reading is complicated by the fact that one of the major villains in the film is female: Rosemary’s neighbor Minnie, played by Ruth Gordon of Harold and Maude. A momentary digression from the feminist analysis: although Harold and Maude was released a few years after Rosemary’s Baby, I have to say she plays the character with the same eccentric, buzzy energy which is ultimately what’s so lovable about Maude. It is very odd to see her play a villain and it is the kind of casting choice that really effects the whole tenor of the film in a really unexpected way. Anyhow, Minnie is definitely one of the most essential instruments of evil in the film. She mixes the drugged chocolate “mouse” which allows Rosemary to fall prey in the first place and then she goes on to mix Rosemary’s poisonous vitamin drink every morning. Further, she also actively participates in the constant monitoring of Rosemary’s daily activities and precludes Rosemary’s efforts to escape. On the other hand, when we add in the idea that Rosemary’s plight is meant to mirror not just a woman’s entrapment within an evil, patriarchy-driven scheme, but as a young woman facing these perils, Minnie’s role in the film becomes clearer. As young women emerged into second wave feminist consciousness in America some of the loudest and most active opposition came in the form of women of the older generation who felt deeply wedded to the patriarchal culture and ideas they were raised in. Minnie’s role in Rosemary’s life is as a mothering figure, which syncs up nicely with this reading of Rosemary as a young woman resisting the role her mother played in the household, subordinated to and an instrument of a larger patriarchal regime.

On the other hand, the primary impediment to me being able to read it as a truly feminist film comes through precisely the element that makes the psychological drama so compelling. The movie really gets the lion’s share of tension from the juxtaposition of the innocent, almost child-like quality of Mia Farrow against the darker forces that menacingly surround her in the form of her too-friendly neighbors, her ambitious husband, her stodgy physician, and even the ancient apartment building. Mia Farrow’s waifish cheerfulness in the beginning and her extreme vulnerability and naivity throughout the film really emphasizes how, despite the fact that she is about to have child, she herself has the childlike qualities that are classic to the historic, sexist modeling of femininity. Her childishness is emphasized by the parental quality of the role the Castavet’s play in her life, her relationship with the male authority represented by Dr. Saperstein, and the often condescending way her own husband interacts with her. Rosemary rarely transcends the role of the victim and it is clear that the movie plays up her childlike qualities in order to gain maximum sympathy from the audience. Relying on this childishness and victimhood to establish the essential tension in the film ultimately means relying on stereotypes of passive, innocent femininity that do more to re-establish sexist stereotypes than challenge them. While much of the film can be read through a feminist lens, her childishness seems problematic to me. I believe the fact that Rosemary never quite transcends the role of victim makes Rosemary’s Baby have a much less compelling read than a film like Repulsion where those boundaries are much more readily crossed.

With that said, it’s definitely a horror movie worth watching, as you’d expect from Polanski. And for more on the feminist implications of the movie, I also recommend the following:

Rosemary’s Baby: A Fountain of Feminism

Spinster Aunt

Rosemary’s Baby, Gothic Pregnancy, and Fetal Subjects

– Posted by VickyVengeance