12 May 2011
Indeed, I’m at a loss after watching Jack Garfein’s Something Wild. Let me recount a few plot points to show why. Lovely teenaged girl Mary Ann (Carroll Baker) is raped on her way home one night from her college classes in New York. She doesn’t tell anyone. After trying to return to normal for a few days, she simply leaves her notebooks on a park bench one day, rents a cheap apartment in a low-rent Lower East Side neighborhood, and tries working in a five-and-dime store, while her distraught parents try to find her. But her inner turmoil roils and she finds herself incapable of being touched by anyone, so eventually she ends up at the Manhattan Bridge prepared to jump off.
She’s rescued by a seemingly nice auto-repair man, Mike (Ralph Meeker), who takes Mary Ann home to his spare basement apartment, feeds her, and gives her a cot to rest on. When he returns home falling-down drunk late at night he tries to touch her, so she kicks him in the eye — but can’t escape the apartment because he’s placed the keys in his pocket. Turns out this is no accident: he intends to keep her there, captive. This seems to go on for weeks, during which she huddles on the cot and refuses to eat. Eventually he asks to marry her, though the line between marriage and sex is overly blurry.
She finally manages to escape from that bleak basement. She joyfully walks through Central Park, eats an apple from a corner produce man, breathes the air. What does she do next? Why, RETURN TO HER CAGE. Creepy captor Mike joyfully welcomes her back. The film ends with her mother visiting the basement apartment and begging her daughter to leave him (he now wears an eye patch, presumably due to permanent eye damage after she kicked him), to which Mary Ann responds, “He’s my husband.”
“Something Wild?” Oh, how I would have preferred that original Manic Pixie Dream Girl from 1986, Melanie Griffith, who drives that awesome car and teaches Jeff Daniels how to enjoy life.
Why did I watch this 1961 movie? Because Kim Morgan’s excellent blog, Sunset Gun, told me it’s a masterpiece. She makes several important points that seem pretty plausible:
- The film broke boundaries by showing a rape and portraying its emotional aftermath for the protagonist.
- Its expressionistic and gritty cinematography was far ahead of its time.
- The film’s difficult and ambivalent ending captures the ineffable results of trauma.
Let me stress that Morgan’s piece is deeply persuasive, in part due to her lovely prose. “It feels like trauma, it feels Jungian, dreamy, hyper real (with such wonderful location shooting). [The director, Garfein] seems to understand, visually, the horror and fairy tale nature of a victim floating above pain. Mary Ann wants to rid herself of anguish, she wants to float, and yet, she’s stuck in a basement,” she writes. I can agree with this — at least on an intellectual level.
Problem is, that’s not the response I had while watching it. Morgan says, “The ending creates a false kind of happiness (intentional, I think) that sits in your soul with such sadness and complication that the movie will not leave you – after all these years, it’s never left me.” A much less sympathetic Feminéma finished the movie and spluttered, “What the hell?”
Above all, Morgan stresses the fact that Baker’s version of Mary Ann is an deeply affecting character — and although I too was moved by those dark scenes of her wrestling alone with the rape’s aftermath, the movie utterly lost me with the captive-in-the-basement storyline and the crazy ending. In the end, the film seemed less sensitive to the woman’s experience that a nightmarish cautionary tale with no clear upshot beyond don’t get raped — you’ll never recover. (Not that one usually has a choice about being raped.)
Even if I grant that Garfein’s film is more sympathetic to Mary Ann than other films about rape victims from that era, my assessment of two other 1960 films — Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women and Ingmar Bergman’s Virgin Spring, plus Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) and perhaps even Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (L’Année dernière à Marienbad, 1961) — leads me to wonder whether, if we consider these films as a group, their directors served up rape stories less to evoke sympathy from the viewer than to proclaim themselves to be provocateurs on a hitherto taboo subject. Or, perhaps especially in the case of the European directors, to use rape almost on the level of metaphor. At any rate, it seems rape was the topic for international film in the early 60s, and I’m not sure it did women a whole lot of good, at least not immediately.
Kim Morgan’s appreciation for Something Wild makes me wonder: am I simply a 21st-century feminist so locked in the political world of my own time that I lack the historical sensitivity to appreciate an early and even pathbreaking attempt to address the issue of rape? She points out, for example, that Garfein was a Holocaust survivor who well understood “entrapment and subjugation,” and that it remains rare to find films about rape that don’t just display sympathy for the woman but “deal with it as a kind of submersion into a subterranean world of dirty rooms and dreams.”
To be honest, I’d love to be able to cop to the charge of present-mindedness, and to embrace Morgan’s reading. I trust her argument most for the film’s first half, in which we watch Mary Ann wrestle with her demons and refuse to tell anyone about her experience. But I felt increasingly pushed away from her during the second half of the film. For me at least, Morgan’s position holds less water during that “entrapment and subjugation” part of the film in which Mary Ann and Mike face off as captive and captor, a hour of screen time that concludes — crazily — with something resembling love between them.
To buy Morgan’s argument, I believe,one would have to see the rape as real and her captivity as an almost metaphorical extension of her suffering. In fact, during the film’s second half not only did I feel less sympathy and more confusion, but the cinematography makes a major shift toward a kind of theatricality that conveys an odd artificiality. Locked in that basement, we watch Mary Ann as if she’s on a stage and we’re an audience being tested. The film asks members of its audience stretches beyond their comfort zones, but it doesn’t feel — to me at least — as if we’re doing this for the benefit of Mary Ann or other rape victims, but instead for some other aesthetic purpose (or even for the glory of the director).
I think, instead, Something Wild and the other four films I’ve mentioned display an almost prurient fixation with tracing the destruction of female innocence. Most of these films rely on an expressly innocent (and usually blonde) victim, often contrasted with other (cheap) women, like Edith Stapleton here. As a result, I return to the speculation I offered in last year’s post about Two Women and Virgin Spring: I believe this was film’s way of dealing with the sexual revolution — to offer histrionic cautionary tales rather than explore rape per se from the perspective of victims.
To say this film is less objectionable than the others of its era is, in the end, not to give it many accolades at all. I stick with my earlier position: rape should not be depicted onscreen, as it leads to (at best) such a deeply conflicted portrayal as Something Wild and (at worst) an awkwardly titillating depiction of female pain and debasement.
9 May 2011
Others might prefer Julia Roberts’ big toothy grin or Kerry Washington’s perfectly kissable pout. For myself, I like actresses whose mouths do additional work for them beyond simply looking pretty — mouths that gives women character. We live in a world in which actresses keep getting told to medically alter their most distinctive features to bring them into line with mainstream tastes; rather, I want to celebrate real women’s faces.
Take Sophia Loren. No matter whether viewers got distracted by those curves and those cheekbones, her mouth always offered a kind of gravitas to her parts onscreen. No one could be mistaken into thinking she was eye candy alone. She signaled a whole range of emotions with variations of the set of her mouth as seen here — disapproval, distance, determination, controlled rage. That mouth could break your heart and win your respect. When she kicked you out, that mouth might well be the thing you remembered most. For a 76-year-old goddess, as she is now, her mouth gives her a grandeur that I, for one, would kill for.
But there’s also Carey Mulligan‘s little smirk. She’s one of the few ingénue actresses of the moment whose distinctive mouth always tells me she’s far more imaginative, interesting, and pragmatic than her blonde loveliness and dimples might otherwise lead us to expect. Considering how often she’s played straightforward girly-girls (think Bleak House and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) her mouth always undercut any impulse to underestimate her. If you scan through Google images of her, she’s invariably photographed with her mouth clamped shut tight, which gives her a perpetually ironic or grimacing look. It just goes to show you: even if you’re everyone’s favorite girl actor right now, their love might be won by the intelligence that obviously backs up your Twiggy-like cuteness.
And oh for the long, long jaw and mouth of Khandi Alexander. I’ve loved her ever since her early NewsRadio days — a love so pure that I am (still) willing to forgive her turn on the otherwise unwatchable CSI: Miami as the medical
examiner Dr. Alexx (!) Woods. If there remained any doubt about my forgiveness, it’s been resolved now that she’s in HBO’s Treme as the owner of her family’s bar. Alexander’s face has an elegance that bespeaks her early career as a dancer and choreographer — for stars as prominent as Whitney Houston — but it’s that mouth I celebrate every single time I see her. She can sneer, purse her lips, or explain detailed medical terms with equal aplomb; and when she smiles, she flashes the most astounding mouthful of beautiful teeth.
On the topic of teeth, however, I’m really getting sick of the super-perfect caps that actors use to whitewash their delightfully irregular fangs. I was crushed when Michelle Rodriguez changed her sexy, slightly crooked teeth in for a generic set out of a magazine; she might as well be anyone. Who would Steve Buscemi or David Bowie be without those teeth of theirs? In the absence of many crooked-teeth heroines to choose from in the acting world, I’m going to celebrate Kirsten Dunst, whose lateral incisors pop out a bit and remind us she’s a real woman. Even just on their own, Dunst’s teeth give her entire face a youthful realness that reminds me of how many of us finally got liberated from our junior high-school braces only to discover our teeth had other ideas. Plus, in Dunst’s case her teeth always remind me of her early star-making role in Interview With the Vampire (1994), made when she was only 12.
Dunst’s comparatively thin lips also reminds me to sing a short song to the early Barbara Hershey. I was too young to notice her until the wonderful Woody Allen film, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986 — remember when his films all seemed to be wonderful?) in which the excellently creepy Michael Caine lusts for her. One of the best things about that film was its capacity for making us see Hershey’s superlative beauty and her natural ease through Caine’s eyes. Hershey always seemed a bit unaware of how truly beautiful she was — except her great, thin-lipped mouth and slightly jutting chin always gave her a glamour that even a high school girl could wield as a weapon. For that reason it was crushing to hear in the early 90s that she had undergone lip augmentation for the film Beaches. She later had the procedure reversed (or perhaps the lips deflated on their own?); I’m still working on reversing my frustration with her as a poster child for the Angelina Jolie craze for absurdly poofy lips.
And finally there’s the mixed-race Devon Aoki, who channels a little Christina Ricci with her unusually small jaw and petulant pout contrasted with her prominent cheekbones and striking eyes. In Sin City she played the ruthless killer Miho. The story never met a female stereotype it didn’t like — it casts Miho as mute (yeah, I know) who was sure to slice you in half with her swords if you crossed her, especially if you made the mistake of calling her a “Jap slut” or “Jap slag.” Misogynistic stereotypes aside — and I think you know how much it takes for me to set them aside — I got stuck on Aoki’s unusual mouth. I’ve got a small jaw myself, so I know that Aoki’s orthodonist must have become wealthy finding ways to make all her teeth fit in as they should; most of all, I’m delighted to see a broader range of great mouths on female actors.
I’m racing back to finish grading now, but do let me know if I’ve missed anyone.
3 June 2010
I’ve been trying to write about Vittorio De Sica’s “Two Women” for months now, a film that garnered Sophia Loren the Academy Award for Best Actress. But the subject of rape in connection with women’s sexuality is a tough one, and I kept putting it off — until tonight, after watching Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring,” which won both the Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. Here’s my question: Why were people watching so many movies about rape in 1960, and finding them so award-worthy?
In both cases, the rapes are graphic even today — the films show the women struggling, bloodied, traumatized, their clothes torn. In “Two Women,” Sophia Loren and her 13-year-old daughter, each pinned under a fierce group of ravaging soldiers in a bombed-out church, gaze frantically at each other before they lose consciousness. In “Virgin Spring,” three shepherds trap the golden-haired, unsuspecting Karin and rape her; when they’re done, they kill her with a club and steal her clothes. What the hell?
Of course “Two Women” is an antiwar film — it revisits the true story of mass rapes by French Moroccan troops in Central Italy near the end of World War II — but do we really need to see a vicious rape to get an antiwar message? Rather, the film is partly about the neat contrast of the two women’s sexuality: it portrays Loren at her most luscious and earthy, wiping sweat from her brow and fanning her magnificent chest as admiring men look on, so different than her religiously devout, pubescent child with big eyes and a clear conscience. Loren’s character has used sex and her beauty before when necessary, but she has always done so to remain in charge of her future. De Sica might be telling us that in war everyone suffers atrocities; but by offering us the contrast of their different sexual histories, he makes those histories somehow relevant.
Karin may be the ill-fated virgin in “Virgin Spring,” but she’s no innocent. As the spoiled daughter of a prosperous farmer, she heads out through the woods with her slatternly, cranky, pregnant-out-of-wedlock foster sister, Ingeri, to deliver candles to the far-off church (they must be delivered by a virgin to please the Virgin Mary, they believe). Decked out in her most beautiful clothes, she sings songs of spring and renewal, and the countryside blossoms around them. But as they travel, Karin reveals herself to have a vicious streak: she smugly informs Ingeri that she’ll never be pregnant outside of marriage, but only when she is “mistress of my house with honor.”
Ingeri: “We’ll see about your honor when a man takes your waist or strokes your neck.”
Karin: “No man will get me to bed without marriage.”
Ingeri: “And if he meets you in the pasture and pulls you down behind a bush?”
Karin: “I’ll fight my way free.”
Ingeri: “But he’s stronger than you.”
Stupid girl — Karin won’t learn until it’s too late. Like De Sica, Bergman uses the contrast of the promiscuous girl against that of the beautiful virgin — and why? To illustrate a chaotic view of the world around us. Karin’s rape and murder result in her father avenging her death by brutally murdering the shepherds — at which point they discover that a new spring of fresh water has grown up out of the ground below her dead body. This isn’t a film about revenge, as some critics have suggested; it’s a film in which nothing makes sense, in which every effort to make sense of the world results in confusion. Thus, the contrast of the blonde with the dark-haired Ingeri serves no other purpose than to remind us that women’s sexuality is always somehow relevant, meaningful, dangerous.
The argument for showing a rape in film is, I suppose, that its horror will repel viewers, alert them to the terror women experience, and draw larger conclusions about the terrors of war and the meaninglessness of the universe. But it’s not worth it. I’ve been thinking about this subject ever since seeing “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” a couple of months ago, with its brutal rape-and-revenge plot. Rape scenes onscreen tell audiences far more than simply transmit antiwar messages or allow us the satisfaction of a rape victim eventually kicking her oppressor’s ass. They offer up dividing lines between men and women and insist on showing physical terror that has no comparative violent act against men. Moreover, rape is an uncontrollable plot device that associates women’s sexuality with fear, violence, and shame. We need to stop showing them.
Isn’t it interesting that as these filmmakers were producing their films in1960, the so-called “sexual revolution” was beginning to be discussed — The Pill was hitting the market, rock and roll was showing everyone how to use their hips, and the western world was taking a turn toward public discussions of sexuality that had only been glimpsed with the earlier Kinsey Reports and Beauvoir’s Second Sex. Isn’t it interesting that one of the harbingers of that shift was two prominent films that used rape as a plot element; rape allowed these directors to make “serious,” hard-hitting, perhaps even controversial films. But ultimately they simply warn girls to watch out. We need a moratorium on rape scenes in film and television.