Tag Archives: oppression

The Ones We Might Have Saved

So, we’re a little late to the party – OK, from the looks of it, a few weeks late – but the two of us felt that joining in Arbogast on Film‘s “The One You Might Have Saved” floating blogathon was too good of an offer to resist. Therefore, better very late than never, here are our takes on horror movie characters we liked too much for them to just be killed off, like that, so senselessly! Can you imagine that the filmmakers had the gall to do such a thing? The bastards! (Warning: spoilers are inherent.)

Andreas

I would save Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette) in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). Yeah, Tippi Hedren’s Melanie Daniels was the star, destined to end up with Hitchcockian mama’s boy Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). But whereas she was mostly a spoiled, emotionally fucked-up drama queen learning to cope with an emergency, Annie was the really mature, worldly one.

Annie was Bodega Bay’s schoolteacher, and she was exactly the kind of teacher you wish you’d had in middle school. Resigned to her provincial life in a coastal town she called “a collection of shacks on a hillside,” she was totally jaded. She’d given up on a romance with Mitch after his mother disapproved, and resolved to hang around Bodega Bay… smoking, gardening, teaching, etc. Annie’s whole attitude is delightfully sardonic, and she gets some of the film’s best lines. (Hell, she begins a sentence “With all due respect to Oedipus…”) She’s a woman with little to lose, content to help the town’s children play games, sing that obnoxious “Risseldy Rosseldy” song, and practice fire drills, all with a knowing look in her eyes.

And when the birds strike, whether at a birthday party or at her schoolhouse, Annie doesn’t freak out. She just takes the lead, keeps the kids calm, and does everything she can to save their lives, even at the expense of her own. That is a good teacher. I can remember plenty of teachers who would never have taken decisive action like that, even in the midst of a bird attack, and definitely wouldn’t have sacrificed everything for their pupils. But Annie, for all her cynicism about romantic relationships, still has some fight left in her, and dammit, she cares about those kids.

I grant that Annie’s death does have meaning within the film. It could’ve been a lot more ignoble. Mitch and Melanie dwell on it, try to give her mutilated corpse some dignity, and the trauma sticks with them for the remainder of the film. So yes, her death and its consequences are well-written, especially given the awesomeness of her character. Mainly, I’m pissed off that she dies in the first place. She’s the one spark of sarcastic charm in Bodega Bay, a place full of unironic fishermen, yokels, drunkards, busybodies, and repressed lawyers. Assuming that the birds eventually stop killing everyone and move on, how will Bodega Bay rebuild without Annie?

While glancing through the film’s script, I noticed a line which I don’t think made it into the final movie. It’s from Annie’s surprisingly intimate heart-to-heart with Melanie:

Here I have a life. I’ll go into that classroom on Monday morning, and I’ll look out at twenty-five upturned little faces, and each of them will be saying, ‘Yes, please give me what you have.’ (pause) And I’ll give them what I have. I haven’t got very much, but I’ll give them every ounce of it. To me, that’s very important. It makes me want to stay alive for a long long time.

If only she had. I would not want to be a kid growing up in Bodega Bay without Annie around. She’s the one I might have saved.

Ashley

As Andreas said, we are a little late to the game but who cares! This is such a fun interesting topic that we can’t let it pass up. So here’s a character that I would have saved, Bobbie Markowe from The Stepford Wives:

The Stepford Wives is such a biting, bleak expression of all the things women fear. It’s especially terrifying to a loud, opinionated feminist like myself; the idea that there is no room for substance or personality if you’re female as far as men are concerned. Just shut up, cook, clean and be available for sex at all times (and like that sex, dammit). In a historical context, this film was made during an intensely politically charged era during which second-wave feminism was at a head. It represents with such dark, dead-on accuracy what oppression feels like: the sense of no escape. Despite your hardest sleuthing and strongest determination to escape there will always be something else to hold you down, shut you up,  or completely invalidate you and your words.

Our protagonist Joanna Eberhart and her slovenly, braless, spirited friend Bobbie Markowe are the sole representations of female empowerment and feminist ideology in a disturbing town full of docile homemakers. I love Bobbie. I love her so much. Her quirky, cute disregard for homemaking are a beautiful representation of a woman who just naturally ain’t into that cooking and cleaning stuff. I love Bobbie because I relate to her deeply on a personal level and see myself in her and her fears.

Everything that Joanna and Bobbie stand for is presented in stark contrast to the Stepford Wives. Their comfortable, casual clothing vs. the starched and pressed dresses and blouses of the wives. Their social and political awareness and increasing concern and fear vs. the vapidity of the wives. And throughout the film, you feel a shaky yet comforting faith in their power as a team. Bobbie and Joanna will get through this together. They will escape Stepford and be free women. And then, out of NOWHERE Joanna comes to Bobbie’s house and what does she find:

It’s unexpected, frightening and a horrible blow to the viewer. Dear GOD, no, not Bobbie! Why!? Why, Bobbie! And then things get even more horrifying as Joanna gets closer and closer to the truth about the wives of Stepford. In one of the most terrifying scenes of the movie, Joanna confronts Bobbie proclaiming “I bleed! Do you bleed!” before stabbing her with a kitchen knife. It’s a moment of profound horror, and I may read just a bit too much into it in how I interpret her words and the area where she stabs (not quite her stomach but just below near a more…sensitive area). Instead of bleeding or showing any human reaction at all, Bobbie merely pulls the knife out. She doesn’t bleed. She is not a woman at all.

“Bobbie” then goes into a mechanical loop, monotonously repeating words and phrases, dropping cups and just tweaking the fuck out. Because she’s a goddamn robot. ROBOT. We don’t know what actually happened to Bobbie, we don’t know what horrible end she met and who or what offed her. All we know is that she disappeared and was replaced with this.

Bobbie Markowe is, for me and I’m sure for lots of other viewers and lovers of this film, such a significant loss. The entire film is so bleak. There is no escape. There is no way to get out from underneath the oppression we as women experience living in a patriarchal society. Bobbie and Joanna represent the fight against all of that, the constant angry cry against everything that holds us down. And it’s so upsetting that Bobbie-strong, willful, opinionated, quirky Bobbie-is dragged down and ripped apart by this over-exaggerated caricature of  male oppression. If I could have, I would have saved Bobbie Markowe.

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One Hour Mark: The Piano

This is a curious image from 1:00:00 into Jane Campion’s masterpiece The Piano (1993). It’s from a performance within the film – a Bluebeard shadow play that’s just been interrupted by several angry Maoris. The main characters are all in the audience, but for the time being all of the film’s attention is devoted to the chaos onstage. And because this is such an intelligent, well-made movie, even a seemingly insignificant frame like this can speak volumes about the film’s positions and ideas. In its context and composition, I’m seeing a lot being said visually here about race and gender roles in New Zealand.

First, and most obviously: Bluebeard. The plot of the shadow play is a pretty clear parallel the film overall, which contains many outdoor scenes saturated with blue; the wealthy colonist Alistair (Sam Neill) is a stand-in for Bluebeard, while his mute wife Ada (Holly Hunter) is “the sweetest and youngest of all [his] wives.” This is overtly a film about gender relations, power play, and self-expression, with this amateurish performance as a theatrical oversimplification of the rest of the plot. So we also have a reality/fiction divide here, especially since Alistair isn’t so melodramatically grotesque and evil.

Then, continuing along these lines, there’s the reaction of the Maori tribesmen, who perceive the performance as reality. The film’s characters intrude on its own sly self-reference, ruffling up the show and destroying the illusion. Look at the heavy paint on the actors’ faces, and compare it to the ritual self-marking of the Maoris (or “Tā moko”). This frame is a great illustration of gender and race dynamically intersecting. These Maoris don’t appreciate the artificiality of the British traditions imposed upon them, and are reacting violently. But the violence isn’t against the British colonists; it’s against the fictional villain Bluebeard, and the intent is to rescue an imperiled woman. So we simultaneously have a colonist/native culture clash and an exhibition of heroic masculinity.

The charging Maori cries out to Bluebeard as he approaches the stage, and how this cry is rendered in subtitles makes this reading even more explicit: “Coward – bite on my club! … Let’s see how this feels up your arse!” The Maori is metaphorically threatening to rape Bluebeard in the mouth and ass. It’s the collision of highly stylized western storytelling with Maori warrior tradition, and when the shadow play illusion is broken up, it has a “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” effect. As you can see, the actor playing Bluebeard is exposed in his elaborate, ridiculous costume with an expression of terror on his face. He’s vulnerable, he’s immobile – anything but the in-control patriarch he was a moment before. Bluebeard has been totally emasculated by the Maori warrior.

This conflict between masculinities plays out in how the image is put together: the British actors, all rendered impotent, stand and stare at the Maori, who’s the focal point despite being blurry and in motion. He is the active member of this tableau. Yet this whole scene is ironic when you consider the fate of the Maoris as a people. (I’m reminded of a movie I saw last year called Utu, which was entirely about Maori attempts to fight British oppression.) I don’t know to what extent Campion intended The Piano as a broader allegory for New Zealand’s colonial history, but it’s easy to read some complex commentary on nationality, sexuality, and gender. In the end, Ada leaves the possessive Alistair for happiness with George Baines (Harvey Keitel) – and George, an outcast amongst the colonists, has the Tā moko. So I don’t think it’s too extreme to say that the ending might be foreshadowed when the Maori warrior disrupts Bluebeard’s façade of masculine power.

On a broader level, The Piano is a passionate, beautiful, heart-breaking film. I love Campion’s work, having seen her early tale of familial dysfunction Sweetie and her biography of writer Janet Frame, An Angel at My Table. Both ask questions like The Piano‘s: what is a woman’s place in the world? What is her relationship to the men around her? And in both films, as in The Piano, she engages these problems through the lush, potent realm of visual metaphor. As a filmmaker, Jane Campion is a master of exploring female subjectivity.

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