“Peer pressure is either a boon or a bitch with the power to destroy the world, or save it.”
“The blood was running down from under my jaw where the point had been. I had never felt such brutality and carelessness of touch, or such disregard for another person’s body. It was not the steel or the edge of the steel that was frightening; the man’s fingernail, used in any gesture of his, would have been just as brutal; the knife only magnified his unconcern.” ~ James Dickey1
“Men are all alike. It’s their game. I’m just smart enough to play it their way.” ~ Mae West (She Done Him Wrong)
If a film succeeds at something, does it matter if it’s unconsciously? Long demonized as the vilest of exploitation films, I Spit on Your Grave (1978) is a 1970s shocker meant in the tradition of Deliverance and Death Wish, just with a woman attacking her attackers, in cold blood, one by one. It was originally known as Day of the Woman, a much more liberated title, alluding to other “amok nature” films like Day of the Animals (1977), Day of the Dolphin (1973), etc. I mention this not to absolve the film but to illuminate a problem for examination, that is, the root chord of our complex response as viewers to cinema rape itself, and the way the same root can branch in a different direction and blossom into a more positive experience if the group dynamic/peer pressure is employed in service of a moral code, a la chivalry, brotherhood, and love.
As someone who grew up watching Sneak Previews with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert in the early 1980s, I was traumatized long before seeing I Spit on Your Grave. If you saw it, you remember the outrage and woeful despair of two professional film critics who’d been forced by their job to wade through piles of slasher films in the slasher-craze of the early 1980s. They praised Halloween and blasted Friday the 13th and then turned their most disheartening sighs toward I Spit on Your Grave, showing a long clip wherein a quartet of evil rapists with New York accents are seen lording it over a bruised, violated woman in an isolated cabin, reading pages from her manuscript before ripping them up and throwing them around the room. Their evil voices stayed in my head for 20 years before I actually saw the film. Being a sensitive Piscean liberal arts major, I knew I must never watch it, lest the urge to just castrate myself in horror at my gender’s violent penchants prove too much.
But contempt prior to investigation is a sad strategy for film critics, as so much of a cinema’s reputation rides on their opinions. I know other obsessed film lovers like me who have trusted the condemnation of Ebert and kept away from the film rather than be associated (even though only to themselves) with the skeezy phenomenon of Laura Mulvey male-gazing (such as myself until now). Seeing it today on DVD, on the quiet alone on a big screen with the THX sound, finally purged of most of my pre-emptive male guilt, is to appreciate Day of the Woman as a film of austere intellect and genuine guts to walk it like it talks it, a film that really could and should be re-evaluated in comparison with Hooper’s Day of the Woman and Deliverance, and even the Aileen Wuornos film Monster rather than typical brain-dead slasher-style horror.
Ultimately then, the issue of Spit’s bad reputation is not even about sex or misogyny or hype but about unresolved issues in the collective cine-male psyche; our disgust at our gender’s propensity towards rape runs so deep we’re embittered by it. Perhaps we feel that if we experience the trauma ourselves, it will somehow heal our bitterness by repetition-compulsion disorder-proven methods, providing us with a strong sense of empathic pain and rage, which we’re eager to feel and thus hopefully exorcise from our psyches. Instead, we hate on a film we haven’t seen as a symbol of things we hate, as if hating ever healed anything.
As Carol Clover notes in her essay “Her Body, Himself,” men imagine the female body as being more highly receptive to pain, and so we imagine ourselves as women feeling pain almost as a form of ideational therapy; we all must slog through guilt over our own births. Think of The Searchers: John Wayne would rather kill the white girl than let her live with the Apache who abducted her, but is it to spare her suffering or our own “somewhere a child is being beaten”-style anxiety, our collective male guilt every time a woman suffers? When critics write, as Adam Rockoff does, that “I Spit on Your Grave is truly a vile film,”2 all I would ask is, how can a film that addresses the vile ugly root of objectification actually be more vile than, say, a film like Porky’s (1982), which just practices it? (Then again, I haven’t actually seen Porky’s; there’s that old contempt prior to investigation again!)
In the end, the real horror is that soon there will be a remake of this too, and judging by the PR (the major change they want to make is to “ratchet up” the shocks.”3
So who is getting off on these shocks? Who is the vile audience we hate and suspect, the low males for whom female sexuality inspires intense hatred and ambivalence? A lot of the hate for I Spit on Your Grave is perhaps aimed at its imagined intended audience: slavering, raincoated misogynists. But does this audience really exist? Might they not be an exaggeration felt under the influence of sexual frustration, alienation, and low body image? We all know the feeling of shame or rage when walking down the street alone we hear people laughing behind us and in our guts we know they’re laughing at us, but they’re not. It’s our paranoia. We see this attitude in a lot of lone-gunman movies like Taxi Driver, Dirty Harry, and Death Wish. A kind of simultaneous criticism and celebration of the unique despair and anxiety associated with “not gettin’ any.” It’s muckety muck that a17-year-old Frank Miller comic-reading virgin might feel at the thought of his hated schoolmates assaulting a girl he admires, and her barely seeming to care that she’s being violated by all these guys when he’s the one who really loves her. The idea that the girl we honor just “gives it away” to anyone but us is a key dagger in cinema’s self-mutilating male arsenal. It’s a big thing in Hollywood, where as Robert Downey Jr’s character notes in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), the aspiring starlets that litter tinsel town
are damaged goods, every one of them, from way back. I’m telling you, you take a guy who sleeps with 100 women a year, go into his childhood — dollars to doughnuts, it’s relatively unspectacular . . . [putting a cigarette in his mouth] . . . Now, you take one of these . . . gals, who sleeps with 100 guys a year, and I betyou if you look in their childhood, there’s something rotten in Denver . . . . it’s abandonment, it’s abuse, it’s, “My uncle put his ping-ping in my papa!” . . . and then they all come out here! I mean, it’s literally like someone took America by the East Coast and shook it, and all the normal girls managed to hang on.
The above monologue might be apt, but look how even the language used to decry sexual abuse gives rise to it: “Damaged” girls are shaken out of the box and the normal ones hang on. The real and traumatic fact of pedophiles, incest, and rape is reduced to a snide “ping-ping in my papa.” The phrase “something rotten in Denver” almost gives the notion a pungent aroma associated with schoolboy trash talk about hygiene. And who is Downey’s character to say that the boy who sleeps around is “normal” but the girl is “rotten” in her Denver? Even as the nominal good guy out to protect one of these women, Downey’s character’s very language here unconsciously promotes patriarchal violence. “Normal” men sleep around as they please, but women who do the same are damaged goods. And yet, how else can she hope to make it in Hollywood where casual sexual favors seem to be the norm? The implication is a woman is expected to fight back and yet still be violated, and this earns her a place in the male group. But if a woman doesn’t fight back, she’s a very real threat to the patriarchal order.
Carol Clover writes of this phenomenon via the slasher and rape/revenge film: “Paradoxically, it is the experience of being brutally raped that makes a ‘man’ of a woman.”4 But note that this is not a comment on reality, but on cinema’s points of onscreen identification. Once a female character has been raped, we can stop worrying about her; now the revenge can begin. Thus the trauma of rape (in our imaginations at least) mimics the violence we as children imagine accompanies the sex act, which is usually tied up at the time with the anal stage. The aftermath of the rape, the revenge, is the part where we can relax, feeling the relief from having to worry about our heroine for so many minutes. Now that the rape/initiation has occurred, the woman is stripped of civilized delusion (if she goes to the cops they are usually ineffectual or creeps themselves) and “awakened” to her full phoenix power. Thus the rape itself becomes desexualized and instead is a point of initiation almost like hazing. These fascinating aspects of Day of the Woman are touched on by Carol Clover in her essay “Getting Even,” where she notes that the group dynamic of the four rapists in the film centers around the desire to help their retarded whipping boy Matthew, lose his virginity:
The pretense is that the assault on Jennifer is an act of generosity towards one of their members . . . it is a sporting competition, the point of which is to test and confirm an existing hierarchy: Johnny the winner, Andy a strong second, Stanley the loser, Matthew on the bench. To all but Matthew, the woman is little more than playing field.5
Usually in order to make sure we identify with the victim, the dynamics of cinematic sexual assault are much more “stylized” and, the woman’s pain acknowledged with equal ferocity of actor and camera, the focus of the rapists is steadfastly on their victim, relishing her horror with over-the-top sneering. What sets Grave apart is how the camera doesn’t turn away, or cut to angry flash cuts of pain and brutality . . . no leering male faces pressed together above the camera, or assailants screaming at their victims. Instead, there is the appalling sense of time elapsing, of trauma running its toll like a meter, and the horrific disconnect of rapists who barely acknowledge their victim, joking and egging each other on like they’ve got all the time in the world.
When most decent men imagine rape — even just imagining seeing a cinematic re-creation — we are horrified, ashamed to the core of our gender and drives and the fact that on some reptilian cortex level, it’s got a magnetic pull. We want to see it, but we don’t want to be the person who wants to see it. Thus in most such films the dread is all in the build-up to the assault, and then once it’s taking place, the camera often turns away guiltily to focus in on a symbolic broken mirror, teddy bear, or music box. Only in rare instances like Spit are we confronted with the act long enough to notice its horrific banality, the way the act of sex is reduced to a bodily function men do, like excretion, which Matthew does in the woods during the beginning of the film in a weird and disturbing foreshadowing of what’s to come.
Thus Grave is far from being guilty of the misogynistic objectification it depicts, much more so than films that don’t depict it or even recognize it. Indeed Grave moves to the front of the best of rape revenge film since it clearly demarks and illustrates objectification at its most possible and probable — the moral evil that can result when a group of boys or men get wrapped up in impressing and teasing each other to the point they lose all empathy with the outside world. Later, once the men are in turn separated from each other and exposed to the punishment for their crimes, they whimper and cave in, blaming each other like schoolchildren caught defacing school property.
This fearful blaming vanishes, however, with the prospect of sex, which Jennifer realizes and uses to her advantage. After killing Matthew, Jennifer pulls a gun on Johnny, but then drops it after he lays down a line of “but you were asking for it” patter. She seems to forgive and admit she wants to sleep with him, takes him home and into her bathtub. As she’s using her hands underwater to masturbate Johnny she discusses in a flat, almost amused tone that she hung Matthew and that “before I killed him, I let him inseminate me. Can you believe it? He finally came! Matthew finally came.” Johnny is of course horrified, but it’s too late to react, as his dick’s already severed underneath the Mr. Bubble.
Seemingly a tossed-off taunt, it’s Jennifer’s statement that Matthew “finally came” that links her immediately to the male gang, part of their social circle, like a Hawksian heroine. She’s just as “pretend” concerned about Matthew’s virginity as anyone else, and that lets her in the gang. Her assailants have taught her how to close off completely from a fellow human’s fear and suffering, so she can coo like a mom to her baby before slicing off his dick. With this she welcomes herself into their lives, as confident of her supremacy as they were of theirs in the initial assault. For just as nature’s chthonic eye favored them in their rape of her (the very trees and mud around them seeming to be in on her capture), so now nature and fate works for her against them. Every woman adores a fascist, but what they don’t tell you is that their adoration can be even more terrifying than fascism itself. When Deneuve’s Repulsion girl finally smiles seductively at her interloper, it’s only because she’s at last decided to slice him to ribbons.
It was surely no innocent accident that I reached for an old favorite — Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings (1939) — to recover from the sweaty trauma of my long-delayed viewing of Grave, not realizing the frisson between the two would lead to this article!
Directed by Howard Hawks, Wings is a detailed and boisterous tale of pilots and the mechanics and radio operators who love them, flying mail over the Andes in a bid for a government contract in the small town of Baranca. These lads risk their lives to get little two-seaters through a small mountain pass that’s often obscured by thick fog from off the coast. Here, in contrast to Spit, camaraderie and male group dynamics work for positive ends and are rooted in loyalty, honesty, bravery, and mutual love and respect. This group of men is as far from the loathsome rapists of Day of the Woman as it’s possible to get. Or are they?
The film opens with two of the pilots stalking through a bustling South American port, heading to an arriving boat to pick up the arriving mail. They’re also checking out the “action” (i.e., women) getting off the boat, and getting a look at the ship officer’s black eye and suspecting instantly that it’s the result of a failed sexual advance. The two men state there must be a “wildcat” on board. When Joe asks him about his shiner, the officer notes: “I fell on the door knob,” to which the other man replies: “You should ask it to trim its fingernails next time.” Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) now walks down the ramp, and in one second the men realize she is the one who gave the officer the black eye. Thus a possible sexual assault resulting in her savage fighting back is dismissed as a laugh, ending with the officer’s departing shout as they take off in pursuit of the girl: “Be careful, boys!”
For the purpose of this comparison, we will classify these two men as beta males along the lines of Stanley and Andy in I Spit on Your Grave, and they are soon to be one-upped by the alpha, Jeff (Cary Grant), who is in charge of the airline they fly for. Luring Bonnie back to Dutch’s bar, they bet on who’s going to take her to dinner, not even asking her permission (“Don’t I get a say in all this?” she asks). Then Jeff arrives, cockblocks both, and says, “I’ll look after Miss Lee,” sending one of them up in the air in dangerous conditions and the other out to inventory a warehouse that is — it will later turn out — already being inventoried by another pilot (merely king’s rules, so to speak). Dutch (Sig Rumann) is the castrated old man figure, neutered by age into a non-contestant for this particular “playing field.” Jeff meanwhile continually displays his alpha male dominance: he sits in chairs meant for others, takes drinks meant for others, and ultimately eats the steak (the symbolic post-code symbol for Bonnie herself) originally “claimed” by Joe.
The way Bonnie (and all a steak entails) is fought over resembles the play of friendly dogs. She continually reminds them that she should have a say in the matter, but she can’t keep up with the overlapping dialogue quite yet. She has to start slow, bonding with the older fellows like Sparks and the Kid. Later she notes, “Things happen awful fast around here.” After Joe dies trying to get down on the ground in time to have dinner with “that pretty blonde,” she belongs basically to Jeff as the other fellas — dying and whining as they do — have proven they’re still too young to play with fire. Like the men who die in I Spit on Your Grave, Joe died because he was helpless against his own physical desires, like a noir patsy led to the slaughterhouse by his anneau de nez fatale.
But not all the men in the film are dogs or bulls. Cary Grant’s best friend and co-worker, “Kid” (everyone calls Grant “Papa” mainly because the Kid does), is the one doomed to experience symbolic castration and the death that closes the film. The real love in the film is between Kid and Papa (Jeff), with Bonnie even telling Jeff later, “I want to love you like the kid does.” But unlike the aimless vagrancy of the boys in Spit, the men of Angels have a higher purpose (and a stiffer production code). They regularly face death in their service to Papa, whom they adore, because he’s Cary Grant, and because of the selfless way he in turn adores Dutch, the good-hearted owner of the airline/bar. Women aren’t generally allowed to interfere with this all-male group, though the older (sexually sidelined) males — Kid, Dutch, and Sparks — offer comfort and support to Bonnie when she finds herself alone, rejected and/or confused by Papa’s standoffishness, offering her just enough support and encouragement to keep her in the game.
The romance of Bonnie in Wings is in the end a tale of initiation and acclimation, with Jeff only the figurehead of a close-knit family of cool people that any wandering chorus girl would want to belong to, even if they die literally like flies. Sparks especially has a great scene in the end: as Bonnie is getting ready to leave for her boat, Jeff is mourning the loss of Kid but of course (like any true Hawks hero) would never ask Bonnie to stay. And if he doesn’t ask her, she won’t. As she’s saying goodbye, Sparks whispers that maybe she should say good-bye to Jeff first, and they share a low-key, half-whispered exchange of the “think I should?”/”yeah, I think you should” variety. It’s a heartrendingly beautiful and honest scene, the direct opposite of the horrors of Grave and its notion of intra-male peer group service. Sparks intuits that it’s up to a mediator to convince Bonnie to go to Jeff, who is too distraught about Kid to do any worrying about romance. Kid was the closest one to a position as Bonnie’s advisor, but with him gone, Sparks gently steps into the role. In this case it’s not to jostle or prove himself — quite the opposite. The presence of Bonnie on a regular basis would probably disrupt the unity of the group and give the rest of them less face time with their beloved commander, but it doesn’t matter, it’s true selflessness. Sparks embodies the will of nature and of the Tao, just as the vengeful Jennifer does on her retaliation.
The “girl’ of Howard Hawks films is one who can become “one of the boys,” but they never make it easy for her; they’re always buying her tickets to get her on the first boat, stagecoach, or plane out of their cozy frontier town, but she never goes (just as Jennifer doesn’t pack up and split back to NYC after her assault). The Hawksian woman stays and endures her initiation and then gets to enact her symbolic castrative powers, first indirectly causing Joes’ death and creating the space for Jeff to first ground the Kid (for his eyesight) and later to lose him altogether as he dies from a broken neck after a plane crash. Though Bonnie’s presence is never that direct a link to the deaths, it’s still there in that blond Hitchcockian Birds kind of way.
The film ends a few scenes following Kid’s symbolic castration/death, implied in his dying monologue to Jeff, making slight sexual parallels with “looking stupid” during his first solo flight (he didn’t want anyone to see him in case he messed up). When Jeff asks him if he wants to be alone as he breathes his last breath, Kid notes: “I’d hate to pull a boner in front of you, Papa.” Just compare this to Matthew’s declaration during the rape that “I can’t come when you are all looking at me!” Jeff’s comment when someone asks him where the Kid is becomes the aviation-flavored “he took off an hour ago,” but it could just as well be “he finally came.”
It’s a horrific comparison and I love Wings and have seen it a million times and I don’t want to disrespect it, but the comparison should be made, well, because it’s there. And how aptly it illustrates the “pretend” castration of group ostracizing (and all deaths and symbolic castrations in Hawks’ films have a mystical “pretend” feel) as a natural flipside to the sexy “empowerment” of group acceptance and through this double-sided coin we find our roots of the dread of cinematic fascism. In the true fascist state, there is no privacy; everything is done by group pecking order. True freedom is not the freedom to slacken off into a degenerate, but to become one’s own master, or find a truly true person whom they can follow and believe in, like Cary Grant’s Jeff.
Beautiful and ever underrated, Only Angels Have Wings gets better with every viewing, especially after the ordeal of Grave, which shows us the way men’s groups can go if they have no sense of purpose, no moral foundation, and no love, for themselves, their world, or each other. Peer pressure is either a boon or a bitch with the power to destroy the world, or save it. But either way, don’t let Roger Ebert decide for you which is which; that’s a kind of peer pressure too, even if you’re alone, in the movies, and desperately want a hand to hold.