And your ankles will still be broken
For any male whose guardian females were not actually angels, fear of aggressive women has its own ancient agenda. Even virgin madonnas can be scarily assertive; but then – for fiction-loving gents who, frankly, my dear, do give a damn – some kind-hearted ladies compensate for all the trouble they cause by the selfless expedient of dying young. (Thank you, Mimi.) Of course, sensitive males feel guilty about this – guilty and SAFE – which is why most of them learn to shed too-close identifications with The Female, even if their own mothers were once upon a time certifiably sublime. (Okay, sublime and certifiable.)
But how, one might ask, do women themselves ever get to feel even guiltily secure when, presumably, their female role models aren’t so easy to outgrow? Deeper and darker, what is the likely fate of young women if their own guardian females, supposing they had any, were born and raised in a culture of Day-Glo ultra-violence?
Confusingly enough – and despite the punk soundtrack – in Baise-Moi/Fuck me (aka Rape Me) (Virginie Despentes/Coralie Trinh Thi, 2000), I didn’t spot any parents or guardians to help explain a culture of explosive malevolence. For some criminologists this will make perfect sense because, for them, even bad models are better than none. On the other hand, to avenge the (double) rape that opens the film, for one of the female victims there is a gun-wielding, abusively “protective” male to go home to; and to prevent his avenging her honour, she has to shoot him with his own weapon. Meanwhile, her predestined blood sister – one glance at a railway station will bind them forever – has to kill a very irritating flat-mate. So, ten or fifteen minutes in, we have two young women, one more obviously brutalised than the other, evolving at a startling rate of knots into sociopathic monsters.
Perhaps in its favour – but only perhaps – the ex-porn actresses who wrote, starred in and made this were not aiming at any end, high or low, of the sexploitation market. Because of this, and as was certainly intended, I felt real waves of disgust at the many “reality-based” onscreen depravities. Unfortunately, having failed to grasp what internal logic made these events “inevitable” or in any way dramatically persuasive, I also had another, stronger response – the one that, without stooping to irony, Gable’s Rhett Butler really did express at the end of Gone with the Wind.
Iconic if not ironic references are apt for a film that borrows so freely from Hollywood clichés, right down to the authentic double-handed straight-arm way to remove untidy people. In fact, on the subject of stereotypes, a film that underlines the inalienable right to bear arms and bare arses looks the perfect marriage between American Violence and French Sex. No doubt hoping to evoke less superficial responses, of Baise-Moi (right) Virginie Despentes has said she expects the film’s nihilism to lose impact over time, after which a calmer discussion of the issues it raises will become possible. But – apart from alcohol-and-cocaine-induced mayhem – what’s to talk about? The film ends with one surviving murderess planning a style-conscious suicide. Malheureusement, les flics, showing their usual lack of class and raising their raucous male voices, arrive too soon at the dawn lakeside. The considered message, then, for me, is that while this might not be el cheapo 1970s sexploitation, it is el bruto 1980s feminism. The original Despentes novel certainly dates from that period, a decade or more before the film’s production and release.
Meanwhile – too pressed for time for a deeper look – most reviews of Baise-Moi have tended to seize on “revenge” to sum up the plot. Yet, bizarrely enough in a moral cosmos where revenge is often the dark matter and dark energy holding everything else together, there really isn’t much to indicate its presence here. In fact, Manu and Nadine start their killing spree not with an act of revenge, nor even with that very French-Modernist cliché, un acte gratuit, but with the murder for money of the nice-looking thirty-something woman at a late-night cashpoint. Their victim could, at a push, represent the annoyingly dull but wealthy bourgeoisie of so many classic French films; so, if we’re dragging in golden oldies, Bonnie and Clyde probably gets us nearer the mark than Thelma and Louise. As for the latter comparison, all I can say is that, as a study of women’s problems with empowerment, Ridley Scott’s fiction absolutely knocks the socks off “ripped-from-the-headlines” Baise-Moi.
* * *
Stumbling around in the foothills of the territory, my researches into female aggro on film have led to some other startling encounters: for example, lovely young martial arts expert Reiko Ike, forced to hop straight from her bath to tackle a gang of completely incompetent assassins. However, in the naked and unashamed masterwork of “Pinky Violence” that is Sex and Fury (Norifumi Suzuki, 1973) an exploration of predestined serial killings at least sports a clear revenge motif – the murder, while the leading lady was still a child, of her dear old dad.
Admittedly, human morality can be approached more enquiringly than this: are we, for example, when all’s said and done, just an incorrigibly violent species? In the written record, this was an issue the sages of ancient China were among the first to debate. And staying as a quick corrective with profounder aspects of the Asian worldview, I can’t think of a more powerful study of our moral nature than Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff (1954). This shows a leading character torn from a good home and becoming, in a world of selfish brutes, a selfish brute himself. However, with reminders from the loving sister who has faced these trials with him (and who, nevertheless, is driven to suicide), he manages to connect again with his nobler humanity, despite the fact that this won’t restore any of his deepest losses. Like many Mizoguchi films, this doesn’t leave an instant glow in one’s heart; though, among other possibilities, we might conclude that nothing is forever – not even the worst of human evils.
But cinema – particularly Japanese cinema – often provides unexpectedly frank and positive insights, even when, as in Sex and Fury, it follows an agenda that is all bums-on-seats – not to mention tits-and-bums. This peculiarly Japanese gift isn’t, I think, to do with portraying moral complexity per se. Rather, it seems connected with a deep-rooted cultural acceptance of open-endedness in story-telling, something that goes back at least a thousand years to The Tale of Genji. Possibly because its author, Lady Murasaki Shikibu, just happened to die at the tender age of fifty or so, several important plot-lines of the world’s first great novel are left poignantly and puzzlingly unresolved. More relevantly, in Murasaki’s thousand or more pages we do meet one sporadically violent lady, and only one – the jealous young wife and harassed mother who, in lucid moments, sees her own behaviour as “mad.”
The issues this raises may look horribly familiar; and returning to modern times with Reiko Ike, I suddenly realise that she, too, is an oddly familiar figure. Indeed, with her clothes on, she reminds me of none other than England’s very own Honor Blackman. In 1962 – that long ago and several years ahead of Ike – Blackman also became instantly famous when, as Cathy Gale of The Avengers (Series 2), she started throwing herself into the highly exotic, not to say strangely erotic, moves of justice-rendering judo. Apart from the Pill, nothing before in the entire history of womankind – or British TV, anyway – had so threatened to even the score with men. Not surprisingly, then, Blackman now recalls many a real-life pub scene where she had to turn down beer-emboldened males aiming to restore the status quo. She also tells of the time she herself drank too much and invited one irksome gallant into the car-park. Frustratingly enough, and in a manner Murasaki herself might have approved, Blackman leaves that story without a neat denouement; but my guess is that the manly stranger, his bluff having been called, would suddenly have remembered a prior engagement. (That would have been my strategy, though I was always more daunted by Blackman’s posh accent than her equally alien martial arts.)
* * *
Edging, all too quickly for my liking, toward some true mistresses of menace in the movies, I’ll stay a bit longer in Japan where female aggro (especially with “just cause”) has probably been developed more than anywhere else in the world – including America. Among warrior-class teenagers, Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki, 1997) is probably best known in the West; but spies tell me that the best-achieved Action Lady is “twenty-six-year-old cyborg” Major Motoko Kusanagi, lead character in Ghost in the Shell, (Mamoru Oshii, 1995). Especially as it’s been such an influence on the genre, I suspect this really is an “intelligently-scripted, technically marvellous film with some great music”; in fact I’m envious of myself that it remains a treat in store.
As for films I have actually seen, I still can’t leave Japan without mentioning a couple of classics where murder – even under the most elastic definition – has nothing to do with justice. In Onibaba – surely, Kaneto Shindo’s best picture – eking out a bleak and isolated existence, one mother and daughter kill passing samurai for their armour, which they then trade for food. Yet, as far beyond moral niceties as their situation places them, they’re not going to walk free into any dawns or sunsets. This is based, after all, on an old Buddhist morality tale/ghost story and, more relevantly, the film was made over forty years ago when baddies of either gender couldn’t expect much of a future, not in major features anyway. Shindo’s murderous ladies contrast markedly, then, with more recent killer dames who, without hint of any scheduled re-appearance, slip-slide away into whatever life – or death – still has in store. One thinks of Linda Fiorentino as Bridget/Wendy Kroy in The Last Seduction (John Dahl, 1994); and then there’s David Mamet’s House of Games (1987), with Lindsay Crouse as Dr Margaret Ford. Both films have leading ladies who mess with other people’s minds because, otherwise, their adrenalin just wouldn’t flow. Yet the latter is much the more sinister and revealing film, especially if one accepts that high formalism, when as finely judged as it is here by Mamet, only adds to the latent potency of mainstream movie entertainment. (A debut film, too, for heaven’s sake.)
Alright, I’m almost ready for Rob Reiner’s Misery (1990) and will wrap up this section with a brief stab at Kurosawa’s Ran (right, 1985). This isn’t horror genre, of course, but, because of where she comes in film history, one’s tempted here to see the Lady Kaede as a huge step on the road toward the perfect Frightening Female. It’s also tempting to see her as proof of Kurosawa’s “problems with women.” But let the man himself say something: “What I was trying to get at in Ran, and this was there from the script stage, was that the gods or God or whoever it is observing human events is feeling sadness about how human beings destroy each other, and powerlessness to affect human beings’ behaviour.”
The eccentric grammar only makes this more telling for me, especially when contrasted with the amazing surefootedness of – as some of us claim – one of the best Action Dramas ever put on film. As for cultural accessibility, you don’t need to have studied under Buddhist masters for twenty years to see the powerful moral contrasts between, say, the gentle Lady Sue and the heartlessly ambitious Kaede. Nor do you need to brush up on your animistic Shinto to see what’s meant by fox and serpent imagery on the kimonos of this very bad woman. But that didn’t stop first responses to the film being almost entirely negative.
By the mid-eighties, Kurosawa’s output had become more than a little patchy and his patrician dourness was, in any case, never to everybody’s liking – least of all, perhaps, to those swept up by the appealing binary simplicities of fascist feminism. So it took a lot of work by friends (Sidney Lumet most prominently) to spread the good word. And it’s still hard to sell this to anyone who doesn’t get, say, King Lear, on which it’s very loosely based. But that, essentially, is the dark neck of the woods we’re in. Lumet himself, by the way, tends to get the Greek/Shakespearean idea of tragedy smack on the button; and, despite his own advanced age, this is exactly what he does with Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, which, for once, I betook myself to an actual cinema to see. As a bonus, I had the unexpected thrill of watching half a dozen or so young people stage a walkout after twenty minutes. Actually, I didn’t think the film was that good; and though I’m very glad audience responses have not become an entirely passive affair, I worry that the protesters just weren’t familiar with the tropes of classical tragedy – in this case, matricide. That wouldn’t be tragic in itself, but it would be a shame.
* * *
Outside the U.S., Kathy Bates is best known for three roles: as “the future president’s lesbian hatchet woman” in Primary Colors (Mike Nichols, 1998); her Oscar-winning lead in the Stephen King adaptation, Misery, as psychotic rural nurse Annie Wilkes; and, coming between them, what looks to me possibly the most durable of these modern classics, another successful King adaptation, Dolores Claibourne (Taylor Hackford, 1995). Rich as it is with allusions to and inversions of Theodore Dreiser’s American Tragedy, especially the “accidental murder” motif, I reluctantly leave Claibourne for another time. Suffice it to say that, after the crassness of the 1980s, this film puts serious treatment of feminist issues right back onto centre ground.
Finding Bates in gentler pastures, for Charlotte’s Web (Gary Winnick, 2006) she voiced over Bitsy the Cow, not – please note – Betsy (Reba McEntire). This is surely a private joke about her career in bit parts or, if not, it ought to be. What one can’t doubt is that Bates’ choice of roles shows a consistent penchant for literary quality, which is one reason why, at sixty, and despite her Oscar for Misery, she’s not in immediate danger of becoming a real-life Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard. This reference to a moviedom that likes nothing better than to talk about itself leads me quickly to the heart of Misery – a film that talks, in horror genre terms, about the fans, the people with their noses pressed up against the windowpane, the adoring multitudes who will not let you (or your creations) go, or grow, or change, or – in what is unlikely to be the last analysis –live.
Do I identify with James Caan’s wittily self-restrained, self-empowered writer and Kathy Bates’ angrily powerless, passive reader? Of course. Do I get the point that artists and audiences are engaged, at the darkest level, in a horribly limiting set of conventions, a danse macabre whose last waltz is called Double Suicide? Again, no question. Do I think that these asymmetric groups – artist and audience – will stay forever locked in the same doomed embrace? Well, actually, yes and no. Yes, because it seems clear we’ll always have more people being entertained than doing the entertaining. No, because in this very area we’re seeing some of the biggest technological and sociological changes of our era, where “home entertainment” at its most exciting, anyway, is becoming an ever-wider sphere of active possibilities.
“Ordinary people” isn’t a phrase I’m in love with: “non-celebrities” isn’t a huge improvement either, but it will have to do to help me say where, in the most optimistic light, the general culture might be heading. This is a place where self-negators like Annie Wilkes will not, I fear, have all gone away; but they will have fewer reasons to believe that their only hope of fulfilment is, actually or metaphorically, to become a suicide bomber. It’s already possible, after all, for each and every one of us to pursue nonviolent alternatives, like appearing on a “talent” show or – heavens to Bitsy and Betsy! – Reality TV. ( I did say I was being optimistic.)
Meanwhile, I can’t help suspecting that we’ll be seeing more “nurturing” women and “innocent” children taking the lead in real-life horror stories. Indeed, the phenomenon of ever younger murderers is already causing much concern; but it’s wrong, I think, to blame the modern generation of horror movies or even video games. Not every primary school in the West has one, but already some lucky seven-year-olds can enjoy the social interchanges that take place at their Film Club. And if my own childhood is anything to go by, even kids without supervised outlets manage to get together for frank exchanges about what’s “rubbish” or – the other possibility – “great.”
Misery is definitely great by my standards; and greatest – if not scariest – of all is the fact that its “stars” are, in the end, just plain good actors. There’s a horrible pun lurking here – unintended, I must say, but part of the point. Of course, it’s no crime to be exceptionally beautiful or handsome – or, indeed, to be young, when glamour renews itself on a minimum of sensible habits and on a daily basis. But, as we all know, life still asks some big questions, despite all that endlessly self-renewing physical charm. For instance: where’s the next generation coming from? And even if they do turn up in sufficiently balanced numbers, how can they save beloved parents and guardians from extinction?
I don’t, by the way, blame film culture for having failed to come up with hugely convincing answers here. Oddly enough, though, in this context one of my own most satisfying cinematic experiences came in a “lesser” Kathy Bates vehicle to which I’ve already referred – the recent adaptation of E. B. White’s 1952 children’s story, Charlotte’s Web. If young children typically don’t get the finer spiritual point here, it’s probably because they don’t have to and because it’s actually aimed at slightly older people anyway. I’m not sure how old you have to be, but any time you can imagine your own demise, or that of someone you love, would seem about right. Without necessarily making us dwell masochistically on the stuff we get wrong, awareness of mortality usually puts an added premium on observing how we live. And because of that, whether as part of the official misery business or not, we very wisely reserve a special place for any story that does the job.