In Black & White: The Women (Pt 3)

[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]

WOMEN AND THEIR SEXUALITY IN THE NEW FILM. By Joan Mellen. Horizon Press. 255 pages. $4.95 (in paperback).

Much of Joan Mellen’s Women and Their Sexuality in the New Film has been previously printed in magazines ranging from Ms. to Film Quarterly. Although “substantially revised or enlarged upon and integrated within the thesis and concerns” of the current work, these articles-turned-chapters remain pretty much discrete essays, thematically united only by Mellen’s underlying (more accurately, overbearing) political persuasions. Catholic in her blanket denunciations of bourgeois anti-feminism in the cinema, she indicts Cuban and Chinese cinema, foreign and independent filmmakers, as well as that stock villain Hollywood, for “retrograde” contributions to contemporary film. Whether capitalist or socialist in impulse, current filmmakers, consciously or not, are out to portray women as subservient or sexually and spiritually alienated objects of male brutalization. But it’s the capitalists who are lambasted most by Mellen’s humorless forays into political aesthetics: “a capitalism in moral decline” prevents America from producing movies about self-sufficient liberated women while, in general, bourgeois society can only condition its women (and its filmmakers) deeper and deeper into social and sexual decadence—and any meaningful rapprochement between the sexes is doomed in “a capitalist era incapable of human relations.” Mellen’s manifesto lacks even the bite of fanaticism; it reads like some dry-as-dust tract a newly politicized, deadly serious Radcliffe senior might have written 40 years ago when most intellectuals worthy of the name were hailing Marx as messiah and communism as a universal panacea.

Mellen can’t see movies for her bourgeois-baiting: over and over she attempts to sterilize and desiccate richly conceived and executed films so as to fit them into her bell jar of bourgeois sins and excesses. If Hitchcock in his characteristically comic perversity has Jon Finch’s estranged wife in Frenzy (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) run a marriage counseling bureau with Good Housekeeping competence, and counterpoints her incantatory prayers against the rapist’s (Barry Foster’s) rhythmic “LovelyLovely …,” Mellen’s party line demands that complexity become simpleminded male chauvinist piggery: “In Frenzy the independent woman who runs her own business is raped and strangled so savagely that her eyes pop.” Not only does Mellen overindulge in these pithy little reductions toward (and beyond) absurdity—her humorlessness and critical didacticism deprive her of the ability to differentiate between better and lesser films. She criticizes all on one (political) plane, without taking note that one film is aesthetically superior to another. Thus, she lumps Tina Balser (Diary of a Mad Housewife) with Buñuel’s Séverine (Belle de jour) “as one version of the sexually typical modern woman.” In a tract, maybe, but not up there on the silver screen. No participant in Buñuel’s densely surreal mise-en-scène could possibly have anything in common with the pathetic caricature that is Frank Perry’s notion of an oppressed and frustrated modern woman. Just because each of these women is sexually incompatible with her mate is small cause to speak of a Frank Perry in the same breath with Luis Buñuel. But as long as Mellen can lockstep along spouting slogans, what possible relevance can the dynamics of real moving pictures have to her critical perspective? Read her exegesis of Up the Sandbox and you’ll be hard pressed for some time to uncover the minor fact that the film is a comedy (or means to be), so relentlessly does Mellen ignore jokes and satirical sendups in favor of dead-serious explication of the film’s antifeminist message—without at any time “placing” the film aesthetically.

In her chapter on “Lesbians in the Movies,” she discusses films like Les Biches, The Killing of Sister George, Thérèse and Isabelle, and Persona without significantly raising or lowering her critical sights. Her sole thesis, reiterated throughout, is that lesbians are consistently portrayed in the movies as “predatory … compulsively sadistic or masochistic, possessive, jealous, hateful … ‘sick'”—in short, not nice people. Mellen claims that “only in Chabrol’s Les Biches in which the innocent waif who is used and abandoned murders her seducer is the lesbian predator given psychological justice.” Bile, not to mention rage, rises when one tries to fit that description to the reality of the relationship between Stéphane Audran and Jacqueline Sassard in Chabrol’s low-keyed study of mutually interwoven and finally merged identities. (Mellen is prone enough to inaccuracy to be responsible for the multiple errors in a caption under a picture from Les Biches: “Why” (Sassard) is called “Y” and, worse, is mistakenly identified as Audran.) That Les Biches is as much about the way it looks, the visual personality of the star-filtered world in which Sassard, Audran, and Jean-Louis Trintignant play at and play out their strange ménage-à-trois, is not worthy of mention, of course.

The problem is that Mellen is a plot-summarizer and an ideamonger—though her ideological repertoire is severely limited. Rarely does her confusion of movies with undisguised polemics allow her to discuss with any expertise or sensitivity the visual components of a film. Mostly she makes movies sound like the tracts she herself is guilty of. McCabe and Mrs. Miller, that lovely evocation of the physical and spiritual weather of a specific time and place, becomes, in Mellen’s explication, just another example of the evils of capitalism which taint even the existence of the film:

She [Julie Christie’s Mrs. Miller] sells herself as she capitalizes the brothel, a fitting symbol for the entire town, and indeed, for the burgeoning society itself. Mrs. Miller’s desperate and ineluctable end is part of a radical statement by director Robert Altman about the inescapable enslavement of the youthful capitalism … what enabled the film to be financed and produced is at once the image of Mrs. Miller and her fate. Super Whore is liberated from domesticity, but only opium, smoked amidst a crowd of indentured Chinese laborers, provides her with any respite or alternative to the prosperous marriage undoubtedly within the reach of so beautiful, inventive and daring a woman. (28)

So there, Robert Altman! now we know that all that mellow golden light laid against the misty blues and grays of Pacific Northwest weather was created in the service of a radical statement about doomed capitalism! Did we have any fond memories of that clean well-lighted house Mrs. Miller operated, full of civilizing amenities and camaraderie? Dispel them at once—the brothel is merely a symbol of burgeoning capitalism. Did we suspect some complexity of sexual motivation and personality in Mrs. Miller? Forget it—she’s simply Super Whore taking the only way out of odious domesticity. These comic strip epithets are not infrequently encountered in Mellen’s prose; perhaps the most ludicrous diminution of plot and character occurs in her discussion of Luis Buñuel’s Tristana:

The church bells represent the authority of the male over the female in patriarchal Spain … The crippled Tristana represents in her person the generation to be maimed by the Civil War, embodying as she does the frequent image in Franco’s Spain of the amputee … Don Lope stands thus for the impotence and historical amnesia of Spain … Tristana is left in the house (Spain) of Don Lope with no new values to heal and revitalize her internal and external habitation. (192, 193, 194, 201)

Occasionally Mellen becomes so entangled in her Marxist doubletalk that she erupts with a veritable lava flow of political inanities, as for instance in this statement about Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris: “… because Jeanne is made the bourgeois and Paul the social rebel, she is violated by a rebel-hero as a bourgeoise and not as a victim of the bourgeois.” No wonder Paul and Jeanne (Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider) kept names and labels out of their uterine hideaway in order to meet and confront one another as nakedly and uncategorically as possible. Mellen takes Bertolucci to task for turning a cold shoulder to Maria Schneider both in and out of Last Tango in favor of the near-“love affair” he carried on with the magnificent Brando. Bertolucci’s direction, according to Mellcn, made the character of Jeanne “passive, inferior, insignificant”: “[Brando’s] sexual abuse of Jeanne expresses the moment of Bertolucci’s consciousness.” One assumes that the hint of homosexuality masked by machismo which Mellen just barely skirts here opens the door to her extravagant claim that “Bertolucci … shares with Sam Peckinpah, despite their political differences, the idea that the successful relationship between a man and a woman occurs when the woman is passive and the man as furiously domineering as a stud bull.” That’s not quite the image I carried away from Last Tango‘s lovemaking, and it also sorts badly with my memory of the tender farewell liaison between Billy and his Mexican girl in Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. But the latter is probably inadmissible evidence as the only Peckinpah movie feminist critics ever seem to talk about is Straw Dogs—with its brutal Rape that is generally accepted as the paradigm of Peckinpah’s sexual philosophy. No doubt Peckinpah, like Ingmar Bergman, possesses a “limited understanding of politics” and therefore can’t be expected to produce anything but “retrograde” cinema in which women are humiliated and brutalized, biologically trapped and degraded.

Rather than continue to take potshots at Mellen’s wide-ranging assessments—mostly condemnations—of directors and films, I’d like to zero in on one particular example of her one-dimensional critical dumbness and inaccuracy: her reading of Alan J. Pakula’s Klute.

Mellen crams all you really need to know about Klute (if you adhere to her critical modus operandi) into an oh-so-familiar excoriation of Hollywood:

Hollywood has long delighted in exposing the new woman as sexually confused, self-destructive when it comes to the possibility of fulfilling her deepest desires, and masochistically at home in relationships where she can preserve “control” by renouncing feelings. (55)

Would it be terribly gauche to suggest that these cinematic themes have hardly been restricted to the distaff side? Hollywood’s “new men”—so often showing up as male romantic duos—seem to me equally sexually confused, whether directors explore this overtly or the theme surf aces surreptitiously. Preserving “control” by renouncing feeling has always been the game poker-faced studs have played best; certainly women have too often betrayed themselves by bathetic immersion in feeling to the exclusion of the kind of emotional control that might ensure their survival and stability.

But to descend to particularities, Mellen sees Pakula’s film as basically punitive because Pakula, realizing how favorably and attractively he has portrayed the sexually independent Bree, gets cold feet and turns her story into an admonitory exemplum about feminine vulnerability in the big city. Klute, that “retrograde” version of a latterday Gary Cooper, must rescue the little girl who’s afraid of the dark and “lyrically” bear her off to live happily ever after amidst pastoral verities.

At the risk of widening Mellen’s never-wavering narrow focus for a moment, I would suggest that Bree’s (Jane Fonda’s) addiction to control, to playing out other people’s fantasies, might just possibly have something to do with the fascination of acting in general. Bree tries for a job in modeling at one point; she sits in a line of carefully cosmeticized products under huge pictures of Vogue-like faces painted and bedecked to resemble exotic birds while the prospective employers examine and comment upon each hopeful as though they were meat. Bree is immediately dismissed as “odd.” Later, she interviews for an acting job and is brushed off by a plastic type who mouths platitudes about the necessity for the actor to know—really know—himself. Again she is objectified, deprived of her autonomy, the uniqueness of her “odd” self. It is in the acting-out of her johns’ fantasies that Bree enjoys a captive audience, an audience that assures her that she is “good” at what she does. Bree, like many women, like many men, glories in a game that keeps her identity under cover, disallows the possibility of being dismissed for having an “odd” physiognomy because she is able to put on whatever face will play.

Certainly this is a defense, armor against pain, feeling in general, ecstasy (going out of oneself) in particular. But on the other hand, it is power—the kind of power any actor feels when an audience moves to his every gesture, believes in his every emotion. There are two dangers: that the actor may lose specificity of self, may dissolve into his many roles, or that he may arouse and loose darkly destructive fantasies in members of his audience, fantasies which refuse to be satisfied by the catharsis of the play itself and demand entry into reality. Bree Daniels craves loss of self in role; her terrific ambivalence toward Klute (Donald Sutherland), whose gentle, firm hands make her stand still, hold her still in her self repeatedly in the film, is so extreme that at one point, when he beats up the pimp she sees as her best director, she viciously attacks Klute with a pair of scissors.

Klute isn’t just about a girl who hates herself because she’s a whore and falls in with a super-cool backwoods private eye because she’s nearly killed by a perverted killer-as Mellen suggests. The whole film is permeated with the theme of “connection”: how do human beings make contact? do they ever connect meaningfully? is Bree ‘s way as good as any other for human contact? We are confronted by these questions, this theme, at the very beginning of the film when the credit sequence appears over an image of a cassette tape player with its coiled umbilical cord through which Bree’s voice makes some kind of perverse connection with her would-be murderer’s starved imagination. In practically every shot, Pakula places two interlocutors at either side of the frame, or has the bulk of one’s back steal impact and space from the other’s diminished form. It comes as almost a physical relief when Klute and Bree embrace in the center of the screen—that contact becomes the fulfillment of more than sexual craving. Certainly Klute is specifically about the psychological and sexual problems of a unique woman—Bree Daniels is one of the few real women to appear on the screen in recent years—but because Pakula and Jane Fonda are so good at what they do, their theme opens out to encompass the human condition, not merely the plight of the female or the victim of bourgeois conditioning. Mellen states that Klute ends on a “lyrical” note with “Bree and Klute sallying forth to set up housekeeping.” Lyricism has nothing to do with it: Pakula, if anything, undercuts the expected happy ending by having the couple hardly speak to each other. Their departure is interrupted by a phone call from one of Bree’s “contacts”; also, in voiceover, we hear Bree telling her psychiatrist that she’s unsure of her future with Klute—”maybe I’ll be back next week.” Pakula is no fool: he knows that human connections are tenuous at best, that power plays which distance are always seductive, sometimes as addictive as the heroin that destroys Bree’s fellow call-girl Arlyn.

I’ve gone on at some length—but not nearly long enough—about Klute because it seems to me one of the few recent films that really has to do with a woman’s insides, rather than her surfaces. That Mellen should simplemind this one into her cramped notion of what’s afoot in the “new film” gives you some idea of the calibre of her response to movies. I’m afraid that Joan Mellen is yet another lady who likes her theories better than any intrusive reality, likes things to stand still and salute her Marxist philosophies rather than move smartly along to the sound of a different drum. Mellen is welcome to her Marxism. I’ll take the movies any day.

Copyright © 1974 by Kathleen Murphy