Saturday, April 3, 2010

To Serve Man -- It's a Cookbook!

I'm in the middle of reading Julie Grossman's Rethinking the Femme Fatale in Film Noir: Ready for Her Close-up (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), which is the kind of academic writing I enjoy. Grossman knows her stuff, and thinks for herself. She doesn't summarily reject psychoanalytic interpretations so much as notice their severe limitations, and tries to move beyond them, to notice what some film theorists would deride as the "literary" aspects of film, such as characters, cultural factors, and mise-en-scene. (I have long harbored a suspicion that psychoanalytic [especially Lacanian] interpretation is popular among film theorists because it simplifies the task of criticism so much. Despite its popularity among post-colonial critics, for example, it flattens out all cultural and even individual difference, so that any film from any culture can be written about without the critic's needing to know anything about the culture. It allows the critic to know a priori how the audience will understand a work without doing messy, expensive research to ask the audience how they understand the work. And so on.)

Grossman's basic take is, of course, feminist, which is fine with me.
One central obstacle to becoming more sensitive to the portrayals of female experience in film noir is the rigid way feminist perspectives are conceived by some critics. Hirsch claims, referring to Cain's [The] Postman [Always Rings Twice], "The original material was not written under a feminist watch and can profit little from a humanizing [?] feminist perspective." ... Neither was Chaucer's Canterbury Tales written under a modern "feminist watch," and yet this has not delegitimized reading the Wife of Bath's tale as a text that has things to tell us about language, class, and female power. The defensive tone of phrases such as "feminist watch" keeps Hirsch, I think, from engaging the diversity of feminisms and their potential for helping us to understand the role of the "femme fatale": the extent to which texts can be usefully subjected to a variety of feminist approaches in ways that will illuminate the text, the cultures that produced and were influenced by the texts, and the reading practices that affect (in some cases quite profoundly) the reception of the text in criticism and popular culture [47-48].
I should probably read Foster Hirsch's book, or at least the context of the part Grossman discusses here. (I think she's referring to Detours and Lost Highways, but she's not very clear, so it could be The Dark Side of the Screen.) Grossman says that Hirsch has "made significant contributions to the study of noir" (48), so I'm not assuming that he's necessarily a sexist porker with no redeeming qualities as a critic. But I think I would go further than Grossman in her response to Hirsch's remark about "a feminist watch," which I think is not just "defensive," it's anti-feminist backlash of a familiar kind.

When Hirsch tries to shield The Postman Always Rings Twice from feminist scrutiny because it "was not written under a feminist watch and can profit little from a humanizing feminist perspective," he's being absurd. All sorts of works from before the rise of second-wave feminism have been read and studied through feminist lenses in the past forty years -- not just the Wife of Bath's Tale, but probably most of the canonical texts of English and American literature. Kate Millett got the ball rolling with Sexual Politics, published in 1970, in which she discussed (among others) Charlotte Bronte, and James Cain's older male contemporary D. H. Lawrence. Indeed, none of the writers she discussed wrote "under a feminist watch." Of course the works themselves did not "profit ... from a humanizing feminist scrutiny", but many readers and writers have benefited from the results of this work. Hirsch's remark reminds me of people who try to exculpate famous people of the past from imputations of racism, say, because they lived before the Civil Rights Movement and so could not have known any better. Me, I'd like to know when it was 'discovered' (as America was 'discovered') that black people were human beings -- though I suspect that black people knew it all along.

What makes Hirsch's remark downright malign, however, is the whole notion of "a feminist watch." I will have to try to track down the context to make sure I understand him correctly, but he seems to be expressing a widespread attitude that is usually phrased in terms of "political correctness." We men have to watch what we say now, har har, because you ladies are keeping an eye on us to make sure we don't do anything chauvinist, har har har. Too bad the old days are gone, giggle titter. Of course the "feminist watch" hasn't been all that effective, as so many elements of popular and more-or-less high culture show. Music videos, Hollywood movies, pop songs, the writing of male heterosexual literati, and much more, all express the conviction that women exist to entertain, excite, and serve men. If women have minds of their own, they're bitches who want to turn men soft. If they turn men down for sex, they're bitches who want to run men down. If they accept men's sexual overtures, they're whores who want to sap men's precious bodily fluids and keep them away from their boyz. If they insist on the use of condoms, they're killjoys who want a guy to wear a raincoat in the shower. If they get pregnant, they're trying to get their hooks into him, plotting to use him as a money machine. (These last two sentences in particular are specifically based on conversations I've had with straight guys.)

Now, of course these are generalizations, not universals. There are men who see women as people in their own right, who don't see women's autonomy as a threat to their own. (To normal men, such men are called "pussywhipped fags.") But these generalizations are part of the cultural mainstream and should be recognizable to anyone who lives in contemporary American society. Case in point, not a noir: I recently saw Forgetting Sarah Marshall, initially to see how it handled the frontal male nudity that had freaked out numerous straight male viewers. It turned out to be better and more interesting than I'd expected, but in the end the filmmakers made one crucial blunder. Sarah Marshall gets dumped by the rock-star boyfriend for whom she originally dumped the protagonist, Peter Bretter, and decides to get Peter back by trying to seduce him. Peter has been getting involved with Rachel, the friendly hotel worker, but he's still not over Sarah, so at first he succumbs to her wiles -- and, I contend, "wiles" are just how her behavior is depicted. There's no real recognition or exploration of her pain at being dumped, her fear of being alone, her need to go running back to the man she knows and lived with for several years. None of this excuses her dumping him in the first place, of course, or implies that Peter should have gone back to her, but we've seen Peter in all his messy complexity and insecurity and been expected to sympathize with him; it would be possible to do the same with Sarah, sympathize with her, and still conclude that she screwed up royally, and can't go back to what she had before. What makes Sarah Marshall a run-of-the-mill picture is this one-sidedness. Filling it out wouldn't make it great, but it would have made it significantly better.

And Forgetting Sarah Marshall, remember, is a comedy -- not a noir, not a crime film. Back to Julie Grossman, who writes (63):
Paying close attention to the desperate and violent exploitation of women by men in noir also helps to reveal the inextricable link between the variety of crimes of the male protagonist and the construction of the "femme fatale" as an immutable category, a fixed given the predetermines our thinking about women in noir. As Angela Martin says in a comment that ends the second edition of Kaplan's Women in Film Noir:

It is also clear that in most of these films women have ended up with bad partners and/or are victims of male violence, perversity or authority. But that in itself throws a different perspective on badness, which is, clearly, usually male in these films, not female [222].
This reminds me of the time Callie Khouri, whose Thelma and Louise was criticized for demonizing men, told an interviewer, "But overall I think I am certainly not showing anything like the animals you're likely to see in a movie by Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Quentin Tarantino, or Oliver Stone ... You can show the most low-life, scum-fucking sicko in the world doing all kinds of violent shit to each other, or to women, and nobody says boo. But you have a woman point out that a guy is a sick fuck and blow up his truck, or have a good time with a guy they already kind of know is not on the up-and-up, and all hell breaks loose."

Another useful comparison would be the highly controversial neo-noir Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992), which I wish Grossman had mentioned somewhere in her book. Basic Instinct was built around the idea of a femme fatale, a rich, murderous bisexual writer and psychologist played by Sharon Stone, who plays a complicated game with the murderous cop, played by Michael Douglas, who's trying to get the goods on her. Stone's character is so amazingly wholesome, and Douglas's character so unremittingly sleazy, that I was startled when I read that Douglas had insisted on, and got, some changes in the script to make his character more sympathetic. The film was attacked during production by (primarily male) gay media activists for its use of the killer-dyke trope, but after its release a number of feminist critics found that it made more sense as a satire of male paranoia, and that, viewed that way, it was hilarious. All the women turned out to be killers or dykes or both, and the men flailed around futilely, pausing only to drool and sweat when Stone revealed in an interrogation room that she had gone commando that day. After reading their analyses, I saw the film and agreed with them: I and the friends who went with me kept giggling helplessly at scenes where the rest of the audience were gasping in dismay and shock. (Whenever Stone kissed another woman, one guy a few rows back would repeat with deep disgust, "Sick ... sick ...") Even if Stone's character was a femme fatale, Douglas's was someone whose defeat you could easily root for. I saw an interview with Verhoeven in which he made his own understanding clear: "She is evil, she's a devil, she wants to kill him, she wants to destroy him." Go, team! Yay, team!

P.S. I found the relevant part of Hirsch's Detours and Lost Highways online, and I'd say I was right about it. He explains the changes in the 1981 version of The Postman Always Rings Twice (dir. Bob Rafelson) in terms of "postfeminist consciousness" and "the captains of political correctness", and seems to blame them on the actress who plays Cora, Jessica Lange, "who is clearly not content to be so self-effacing," and refuses "to duplicate [Lana] Turner's approach to the material." No credit goes to the director (not known for his postfeminist consciousness), the male lead (Jack Nicholson, ditto) or screenwriter David Mamet (megaditto!).

Assigning a 1981 film to a "postfeminist consciousness" is absurd to begin with, but consider Hirsch's complaint that
Unlike their counterparts in 1946, the characters in 1981 are shown in graphic sexual encounters. The impassioned lovers copulate on Cora's baking table in a sustained, semi-explicit scene. The steamy passages, reprised throughout the film like song-and-dance numbers in a musical, are purely decorative; the sex scenes are lit with hot yellow "passion" lighting and are explicit in ways that could not have been attempted in 1946. Depicting the characters' rutting embraces, however, violates the decorum that underwrote both the earlier film as well as Cain's novel, in which sexual freedom was not so easily plucked.
Hirsch's basic point probably has some validity, but blaming the changes on the actress and postfeminism while ignoring the other technicians involved, the demise of the Production Code and other forms of censorship that had imposed the "decorum" Hirsch misses, the eagerness of (especially) male movie makers to exploit the new "explicitness" that was available to them, ascribing these changes to a "humanizing [!] feminist consciousness," to say nothing of complaining about lack of fidelity to source material in a Hollywood film -- all this confirms my earlier suspicion about Hirsch's sexual politics. Moreover, his choice of adjectives ("graphic," "semi-explicit," "steamy," "rutting") suggests that he's even more reactionary than I thought.