Posted in: Books, by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors

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.

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Posted in: Books

In Black & White: Big Bad Wolves: Masculinity in the American Film

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

BIG BAD WOLVES: Masculinity in the American Film. By Joan Mellen. Pantheon. 368 pages. $12.95.

If memory serves, Professor Joan Mellen is not a fan of Pauline Kael’s, but the two ladies have things in common. Both have the (fortunately) rare gift of being simultaneously very readable and wildly wrongheaded, so that the reader is forever being placed in the bizarre situation of flinging their books down in rage and then hastily picking them up and reading on. Neither simply puts forward an idea or argument; instead, the reader is subjected to a nonstop harangue, with no quarter given anyone who might occasion their dislike. Passing off this constant shrilling as serious critical analysis is profoundly annoying.

Big Bad Wolves has a good and timely subject. “Manhood” has, after all, been one of Hollywood’s permanent themes, and with sexual roles being the subject of much debate over the last decade or so, it is interesting to consider how far, and in what ways, the movie industry has contributed either to understanding sexual mores or to distorting concepts of what “being a true man” is all about. Leslie Fiedler’s books have occasionally touched on the movies, and no one can have failed to notice the buddies syndrome which has been the most obvious preoccupation of American movies over the last ten years (not that it was exactly absent from them before that), so a study of “masculinity in the American film”, especially from a woman’s viewpoint, should have been pretty interesting. Alas, Professor Mellen’s tome has set back the cause of common sense about sexual roles by quite a few centuries. In attacking the male grossness and sexual fascism that she regards as typifying the Hollywood product, she is as inaccurate and underhand as the films she despises most.

Roughly, her idea is that the masculinity of characteristic male superstars like Wayne, Eastwood, Redford, Gable, et al. in fact epitomises a violence and brutality that pervade American culture. Such heroes as these, she argues, justify male domination and the perception of women as fickle, shallow, flighty creatures who lack real identity and intelligence. They are also deeply conformist and reactionary, they secretly dread impotence and disguise this fear with macho narcissism, and very often their putting-down of women goes so far as to become hatred of the sex, which in turn makes their idealising of male friendship latent (or not-so-latent) homosexuality. Not that the Prof is against gays – far from it, she claims. But she feels that this hidden form of homosexuality is dishonest and hypocritical, especially as it goes hand-in-hand with a paranoid loathing of overtly homosexual people. The virtues of tolerance, gentleness, generosity and kindness give way to acts of brutality that corrupt and stunt fulfillment. In short, she says, “in seeking to entertain us, movies in a very real sense have exacerbated our pain.”

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