Tag Archives: patriarchy

Seeing Red

Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern (1991), the subject of this week’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” over at The Film Experience, is a feast for the eyes. It’s one painterly image after another, with the sumptuous set design only outdone by the gorgeous lighting. But this beauty is lined with pain. It goes hand in hand with the traditions that constrain four wives of the same man in 1920s China, pitting them against one another and forcing them to play by the patriarchal rules. Teetering between self-interest and sisterhood, these women wage wars and form tentative alliances underneath the film’s lush surface.

The most adept of these warriors is Meishan (He Caifei), the Third Mistress and a former opera singer. As such, she’s every inch the diva, and her star entrance (pictured above) is one of my favorite shots in the film. Late for dinner, she slides into the room and instantly everyone’s eyes are on her. Yet aside from that red dress, she’s not overtly attention-grabbing; her expression is a little calculating, a little condescending, but mostly just detached. It’s all a subtle performance for the benefit of her husband and rivals. I love the way she tilts and sways, taking her sweet time to approach the table. Her years of domestic battle are manifested in her movement, because even a simple entrance has tactical significance.

As Meishan knows, it’s all about appearance. Life in Raise the Red Lantern’s China is driven by pageantry, and my favorite shot comes from the film’s most elaborate pageant—Fourth Mistress (and protagonist) Songlian’s wedding night. Tucked between a ritual foot massage and a night of ritual sex, it’s one of the film’s magnificent long shots. Songlian lies on its horizon, the point of convergence for diagonal lines rising out of its corners. But the composition isn’t merely elegant: it’s also dehumanizing, positing her as merely a piece of this ritualized mise-en-scène.

She’s subsumed by the grandeur and sanctity of the red lanterns. The lanterns: physical objects through which Yimou and virtuoso cinematographer Zhao Fei drench the boudoir in atmosphere, but also signifiers of household law. Thanks to the lanterns, it’s clear that this isn’t so much a wedding night as an instantiation of tradition, a further reassurance that the husband’s lineage will be passed on. It isn’t about Songlian at all. Her oppression is encoded into the shot’s visual majesty, making its pain just as great as its beauty.

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One Hour Mark: Sweet Smell of Success

This is a picture of Burt Lancaster from 1:00:00 into Alexander Mackendrick’s caustic masterpiece Sweet Smell of Success (1957). A late entry in the cycle of classical noir, the film is about power plays in the New York press, as agents like Tony Curtis’s Sidney Falco make dirty deals with columnists in order to advance their clients. Lancaster stars as J.J. Hunsecker, a bespectacled, all-powerful columnist based on Walter Winchell. By this point in the film, Falco has already made several lurid exchanges and betrayals to curry Hunsecker’s favor. Although this may feel a far cry from the somewhat bloodier material associated with film noir, Sweet Smell treads the same ground of human greed and corruption, and the stakes are just as high.

“He’s got the scruples of a guinea pig and the morals of a gangster,” is how one prospective victim describes Hunsecker, but it doesn’t quite do him justice. He’s power incarnate, and insists that this fact be acknowledged. He can be angry, panicked, calm, even loving, but every emotion is backed up by the knowledge of his supreme authority. This is a film about a city of lost souls, and in that context, Hunsecker is a god. Here, he’s giving a magnificent performance for his sister Susie (Susan Harrison). Although he’s indirectly responsible for the smear that got her boyfriend’s band fired, he plays the caring older brother to win her over. He may be able to dispatch anyone with a curt dismissal, but with his sister, he takes some tact.

The scene plays out in stages: first, he’s the approachable patriarch. “Now, take it easy, Susie,” he says, “you don’t have to protest with me.” As Susie cuts to the point, he gets indignant and reveals his self-interest, his voice growing sharper: “You’ve had your say, let me have mine!” The authoritarian in him emerges, and by the one hour mark, he has her almost reduced to tears. Then he goes at her from a different angle: “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.” J.J. is brother, father, priest, and king all rolled into one. He’s also a master manipulator. Lancaster played a number of roles like this – as Sinclair Lewis’s firebrand preacher in Elmer Gantry, or as a fascist general staging a coup in Seven Days in May – but none so effective and terrifying as J.J.

In these films, Lancaster showed the dark sides of powerful men. J.J. is almost nothing but dark side, power wielded for its own sake. Charles Foster Kane may have wanted love on his own terms, but at least he had lost dreams and forgotten potential. J.J. doesn’t even have a first name to humanize him; there’s nothing but a pair of slick initials. His only weakness is his sister, and as we can see here, he has his own methods for taking care of her. It’s only later in the film, as she falls further out of his orbit, that J.J.’s problems really start… but even then, they’re displaced onto Sidney, the eternal fall guy.

In J.J., Lancaster forges one of the great characters in all of film, a man of stone whose sister is his feet of clay. Lancaster is a monolith, and his glasses look both professorial and razor sharp. For Mackendrick and his cinematographer, the great James Wong Howe, the entire crooked city of New York is extension of J.J.’s perversion and power. J.J.’s apartment is the epicenter from which his corruption radiates. Like J.J., it initially looks welcoming and reliable, but under Howe’s camera, each room becomes menacing and bleak. So in this image, we have two all-American icons of security – the patriarch and the home – mutated into cold, controlling monsters. And that, my friends, is film noir.

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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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