It is in the American women’s picture that, in my classroom at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul, I’m able to lead students in a global reading of women’s oppression, for it’s always easier to see inequality and hypocrisy in another culture. I’ve asked my Afghan students to see it in America.
* * *
I cut my teeth on teaching melodrama, or the “women’s picture,” in Afghanistan.
Galvanized by the appalling level of moral hypocrisy at the heart of the American family, William Inge wrote a playscript and a novel that were later developed into the films Picnic (1955) and Splendor in the Grass (1961). Both plots are driven by the issue of female modesty and depict two bleak options for women in small towns: escape (banishment imagined as free will), or an acceptance of economic and sometimes reputational conventions that hold desire in check. On the surface, both films are pieces of Americana, at times almost kitsch, evoking a changing time when the rich and poor mingled dangerously and women could marry up or down. In this regard, they are films about the appropriate use of women in the attainment of wealth, property, prestige. Modesty, as it is depicted in these melodramas, is not merely a restraint but a proffer, a ticket into another class. So long as a woman’s family, as opposed to a woman herself, holds that ticket, it is always valid.
But female modesty, which determines every interaction in these films, is strangely insubordinate. I recognized, during my teaching career in Afghanistan, it’s not a minor issue of social mores, but at the core of contemporary American foreign policy: the mandatory covering of women had been a George W. Bush administration secondary justification (after weapons of mass destruction weren’t discovered and the Taliban collapsed) for our extended wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has also been the basis of fairly recent European legislations banning the burqa, chador, niqab, or other coverings, presumably to ensure secular rights for women (and, for some, the quickest way to erase the presence of Islam in non-Islamic countries).
But it is in the American women’s picture that, in my classroom at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul, I’m able to lead students in a global reading of women’s oppression, for it’s always easier to see inequality and hypocrisy in another culture. I’ve asked my Afghan students to see it in America.
It may seem counterintuitive, but at the heart of film theory there is a rejection of mere appearances. Rather, the medium of film is pried open and ransacked for its deceptions, its normalization of violence, its voyeurism, its depictions of beauty, of social order and disorder; in short, its “spell.”
“So, let’s wake up,” I say on the first night of class, and turn off the lights. We watch a classic scene from Picnic.
Kim Novak, having been crowned the Halloween Queen in a ceremony one can only describe as pagan – including the intoning of the word Halloween backwards by a rapt crowd of townsfolk assembled at the riverbank – travels in a night processional by swan boat. Forget Leda and the Swan; the woman has tamed and mounted her attacker, now rides him, draped in a fur-lined velvet cape and holding bouquets of roses.
Later that evening, she finds her way to William Holden, a sexy, shirtless drifter who has managed to bring every woman and girl in the town dangerously, erotically alive. The dance scene among Chinese lanterns is known as one of the most romantic in film, and as Novak moves her way rhythmically toward Holden, she executes a profound body magic, a hand risen, a leg moved forward, a clap. As the dance goes on, with Holden matching her move by move, each partner resists embrace, though they remain breath-close, as though encountering something solemn and soulful in each other’s sexuality. Neither partner guides but instead appear to measure the magnetism between them; the scene is unusually paced, more languorous than most, and in that languor the film’s tensions flare. The dance is, in fact, a lament. Both characters are echoes, ghosts of their lost parents, who left them only the foolish idea that love and freedom are tied.
* * *
When I arrived in Afghanistan in 2010, I simply wanted to teach writing and film in a country that had long occupied my imagination. On earlier flights to India, I had crossed Afghanistan’s mountain ranges and was awed by its knife-sharp peaks and its waves of snow. How, I wondered, did anyone live there? Then, after a year of teaching in Beirut, I Skyped with a friend who I heard was teaching at the American University in Kabul. It was a surprisingly good connection, and I caught Bruce on his rooftop, a satellite dish behind him, and behind the dish, those same mystifying mountains. “Come out here, buddy. I think you’ll really like it.”
“Will I get killed?”
“What about the students? Good?”
“They’ll understand you. They’ve got a sense a humor. You can measure their hard times by their humor. They’re committed. But now’s a good time to apply. We just lost somebody.”
“How?” I laughed.
He didn’t say.
* * *
It was a late-night course, beginning at 8 p.m. and running until 9:30, so it was attended by fourteen men and one woman who’d been born and raised in Southern California but had chosen to return and marry her Afghan husband. Most Afghan women at the university opted out to avoid the complications of returning home at such a late hour.
Unlike in other parts of the Muslim world, the Afghan chadri, or full burqa, is frequently a sky-blue color, as opposed to the Saudi or Emirati black. Trailing past in this blue shroud, the women, during the day, are cloudscapes, not the elegant, inky black oil spills in magnificent heels and with gaudy purses hung over shoulders that one sees in Dubai. The Afghan women mix with daylight against dun-colored mountains and earthen homes. Night itself can stain a reputation, and one senses women in Afghanistan hurrying to avoid it unless they are with family, and their honor is not potentially compromised by words or shadows, for words carry shadows, and shadows carry consequences.
Night may be associated with femaleness, as in lunar symbols, but women in Afghanistan are denied much interaction with their symbolic nature. Marguerite Duras, in an interview with Susan Husserl-Kapit, commented, “Women have been in darkness for centuries. They don’t know themselves. Or only poorly. And when women write, they translate this darkness.”1 Now imagine a woman denied even darkness.
* * *
I prompted the class to discuss the film’s primary concern, which might appear to be renegade love but is ultimately its opposite. The students, mostly studying business and law, admitted their fascination with Novak’s dance, her assuredness. The film’s attempted seduction works. Perhaps because it does, the students don’t recognize the film’s focus on the appropriateness of Madge’s (Novak’s) desire, and so we begin to discuss the negotiations that preceded this scene: Madge’s mother Flo (Betty Field) wants her to marry the boy she’s already dutifully dating, Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson), a wealthy, good-hearted dullard, whose dad owns the largest granaries in town. Flo’s husband, we come to learn, has left her. She’s distrustful of men, not money. And when Holden begins to exert his sex appeal over both of her daughters, her neighbor, and her boarder, she is more than wary; she’s in overdrive.
I forward to a scene where Madge’s mother is pinning her into a blue party dress for the Labor Day picnic:
Flo: Madge, with Alan you’d live in comfort for the rest of your life. Charge accounts at all the stores. Automobiles and trips. And you’d belong to the country club.
Madge: Mom, I don’t feel right with those people.
Flo: Why not? Your grandfather was in the state legislature. You’re as good as they are. And when a girl’s as pretty as you are, she doesn’t have to …
Madge: Oh, mom. What good is it just to be pretty?
Flo: What a question!
Madge: Maybe I get tired of only being looked at.
Flo: You puzzle me when you talk that way. Madge, does Alan ever make love?
Madge: Sometimes we park the car by the river.
Flo: Do you … do you let him kiss you? After all, you’ve been going together all summer.
Madge: Of course, I let him.
Flo: Does he ever want to go beyond kissing?
Madge: Oh Mom!
Flo: Well, I’m your mother for heaven’s sakes! These things have to be talked about. Do you like it when he kisses you?
Flo: You don’t sound very enthusiastic.
Madge: What do you expect me to do? Pass out every time Alan puts his arms around me?
Flo: No, you don’t have to pass out. But there won’t be many more opportunities like the picnic tonight. And it seems to me you could at least …
Flo: Oh nothing. Nothing.
“So,” I tell the class, “It’s just a little motherly pimping, isn’t it? In the guise of concern, of openness.”
Some students nod, some appear shocked. One student asks, “Professor, what is pimping?”
I don’t mince words, sound a bit like a dictionary: “It’s the age-old act of selling a woman, for cash, status, mobility, or to pay off a debt, concrete or abstract. It’s not prostitution, which might suggest a woman’s agency. (I don’t mention that only a few days before the class, I went downtown with some students who had excitedly shown me how they can identify prostitutes: beneath the long hem of the pale garment, they simply tap a foot. Standing still is enough to provoke attention.)
“But pimping, or marrying off, is at the center of these films – it’s also at the heart of modesty.”
The words are clear: You’d live in comfort for the rest of your life. Do you let him kiss you?
There won’t be many more opportunities like the picnic tonight. And it seems to me you could at least …
The students are now concerned with what they’ve witnessed. Someone has had to tell them that in these seemingly simple American movies celebrating small-town values and romantic love, something unseemly thrives.
* * *
Picnic is a jubilant piece of American propaganda, effective only if we read its characters as possessing free will, which on the surface they appear to do. But free will, as the characters in these films suggest, is never accomplished through half-awakenings. Only hysterical responses, repetition compulsions, are available to the everyday lives depicted in Inge’s dramas.
Take a look at the film’s framing: Hal comes to town, a freight train hopper, and leaves two days later, on a bus. In and out. We learn his sorry backstory: a drunken father who has literally left him a pair of boots to fill, a sports scholarship, a failed attempt at Hollywood. Hal literally has nothing to offer but love – no job, home, and no plan to amend his reckless, wayfaring ways. Throughout the film, Holden is offered jobs – admittedly menial – but he doesn’t take them, hasn’t the patience for starting “from the ground up.” Instead, he runs off with his buddy’s girl (ah well, she didn’t want that guy anyway).
He is a dead-end character with no arc. He merely perpetrates his old behaviors, and the audience, rooting for passion, for love, is hoodwinked into imagining his recklessness a triumph. In some respects, it is: the good-for-nothing walks away with a prize-winning beauty. He doesn’t have to suck up to his best friend’s family wealth, and he tears through small-town America, forcing it to acknowledge its repression of female sexuality, and at the same time, its timid fascination with beauty, both male and female.
But what’s strange about Picnic (and this is allowing for the town’s blatant segregation, most noticeable in the long minutes of film taken up with sack races and pie-eating contests, and an excruciating barbershop quartet): the constant surveillance of and by women sets off a chain of hysterical (psychological) reactions that rivals (albeit with none of the lurid spectacle and fun) Ken Russell’s The Devils.
For instance, Novak’s younger sister is seen dancing with William Holden, unable to get the steps, embarrassed and literally tripping over her own feet in infatuation for him. Presumably, her inability to be woman enough sets her off drinking. Rosalind Russell, the schoolmarm who’s also been sullenly drinking off to the side, steps in, kicking up her legs and exposing herself, until she’s obviously distraught, aware of her encroaching age, the fact that she might be undesirable, and no longer able to maintain the long wait for a suitable man. Novak’s appearance is seemingly the moment when the right girl meets the right man with just enough coolness, with infatuation in check.
But Madge, too, is overwrought, presumably not from her mother’s suggestion that her sexual availability to Alan would restore to her family access to a class they once inhabited (Your grandfather was in the state legislature. You’re as good as they are.) Rather, she runs from her prettiness, assuming Holden has seen something other in her, something unreadable, deeper than mere appearance, and hence offscreen, where their future relationship will either flourish or wither.
But prettiness is not beauty. It is, fundamentally, a fear of beauty’s power.
Prettiness is beauty already shamed, a modest or at least immature shadow of it. Throughout Picnic, Novak’s adolescent fear of being perceived as “stuck up,” is little more than a relinquishment of power. The film, while attempting to assign to Madge a rebellious spirit, only supports her sacrificial actions. She spends most of the film insisting on her ordinariness. If she used her beauty, it’s unlikely she’d be celebrated. Even her running off with her lover at the film’s end is little more than a re-enactment of her mother’s bad choices. Hal, too, is exactly the man his father was. Impetuousness is the trap of ordinariness. It is the American story of squandered potentialities in the name of love. Every sad sack had a moment when they felt beautiful, ready to love at any cost, but later discovered they’d cashed in too early.
* * *
Inge’s true attack on modesty is best exemplified in the manic masterpiece Splendor in the Grass. It, too, depicts hysteria as a logical consequence of virulent repression, but goes way further than Picnic by actually having both its young, love-struck protagonists go mad.
Splendor possesses such familial rage, it is nothing short of a complete rending of the American family. Bud (Warren Beatty) and Deanie (Natalie Wood) are teenagers in 1928 Kansas. As in Picnic, Deanie’s boyfriend hails from the town’s wealthiest family. Bud is also on the high school football team, a popular but insecure, and strangely detached, lothario. Deanie’s family have invested in oil stocks, and so their respect for Bud’s family, and their dependency on it, are entwined.
Deanie has the better of the two sets of parents, though her mother, a prattling busybody, has devastating consequences on Deanie’s well-being. Hardworking shop owners, her parents are depicted as struggling but earnest, encountering Deanie’s mental instability as best they can, even with their deep hesitations regarding the field of psychology, above all fearing Deanie might identify some failing in her upbringing, which she of course does.
An early scene depicts a frank, even shocking, after school encounter while her parents are away. Deanie closes the window shades while Bud teases her by calling out for “mom.” With the assurance of her parents being away, Bud pulls Deanie close. She commences to kiss his neck. He makes it available to her, pointing his chin up, and reminds her, “you’re nuts about me.” He then forces her to her knees, demanding she be his slave. Tell me you can’t live without me. Say it. And you’ll be anything I ever ask you to be.
Anything. But when Deanie crumbles before him, weak with a desire that confounds and overwhelms her, he’s immediately regretful. I should go down on my knees to you.
Deanie’s sexual delirium is exhibited throughout the film, through pillow-hugging and picture-kissing, so it’s unsurprising that she tells Bud that she would go down on her knees to worship him if that’s what he wanted. The act is interrupted by her mother’s early arrival home. Scene after scene, the interruption of sex reasserts itself: in the opening where the young couple are depicted making out at a waterfall; in the dining room; in a near-rape of Deanie by one of Bud’s predatory friends; and in the suggested gang rape of Bud’s sexually rebellious sister, Ginny (Barbara Loden).
The classroom discussion of this film is charged; I doubt there are many discussions of sexuality happening on our small campus. And of course, I have my own agenda for screening it. Though the film was released in 1961, I didn’t see it until the late seventies. Despite the sexual revolution and the gay rights movement, being queer at that time meant being consigned to a few film tropes, a few innuendos. Mostly, as a gay man, I identified with the women who were written off as bad girls, those who served as omens to the others. I remember when queer bars were whispered about, unmarked little outposts on the outskirts of hetero-consciousness. One had to search film, as one did a city’s perverse underside, in order to locate a complete world (one with queer undesirables), as opposed to a partial and censoring one.
Kabul brings me back to my teenage years when everything worth discussing was undiscussed. My classroom is the gay bar where nothing is barred. The days are long; with limited mobility through the city, though it’s still easy to get a vetted cab and disappear behind high gates into restaurants and clubs, many with pleasant gardens, chattering with journalists and health-care workers and international contractors. In a downtown French restaurant, wine is served from a teapot into mismatched, chipped teacups. The Taliban have been issuing threats to destroy the restaurant’s reserves. The owner has been petitioning the French Embassy to get the Afghan government to recognize wine as a cultural heritage product, making it unlawful to destroy. Nothing comes of this.
The city is structured around these evasions of the rules and is surprisingly lively into all hours of the night. A few American journalists write harshly about Kabul’s tawdry expat scene, as though those of us signing “proof of life” paperwork to teach in a war zone should be more virtuous. Apparently, we’d be better off adhering to the social codes set down by the Taliban than flaunting our Western “values.” The high gates, the guest lists, the peepholes, the guards who scan our passports aren’t enough. Modesty is conflated with respect, but god help us if we ask who or what we’re respecting.
* * *
Splendor in the Grass is set in 1928, a period, like the sixties, of economic boon (and consolidation of wealth), technological innovation, and at least in representations of flappers and the Jazz Age, a libertine, sexual openness. It depicts libertinism not as an option but an imperative: to reject the moral codes of one’s parents and their generation. This is a tall ask in an Afghan classroom; it may be equally difficult in any self-regarding conservative religious community (I often think these films would be harder to teach in some universities in the U.S.). My students go through a set of impossible mental gymnastics to express initial support for the parents in the film, settling on they mean well.
“Let’s discuss,” I say. “Bud’s father wants him to go to Yale despite his desire to be a farmer and his poor academic performance. His father has wealth but wants his son to have ‘elite power,’ the power to influence. Deanie is a nice girl, but she can wait, or better yet, be replaced by another, easier girl his son can have sex with but won’t be responsible for. He pays off a showgirl who looks like Deanie to go to his son’s room for his sexual gratifications.”
“Well,” a student says, “he could be better.” There’s laughter, consensus.
I ask them if they picked up anything strange in the scene of the New Year’s party, 1929, the year of the stock market crash and the start of the Great Depression, when Ginny kisses her drunken father on the lips and he furiously rebuffs her public display.
“Does it suggest a previous incestuous encounter that he doesn’t want displayed in public? Why is the kiss in the scene otherwise? What does it mean that Ginny then staggers from table to table attempting to find men to dance with?”
Now the students come along, but warily. One asks me the point of searching out the vileness of these characters. Perhaps they do things in error. I apologize for suggesting that the family might be the site and source of such trauma and betrayal. But the spell of film is the most powerful narcotic: In an hour and a half, years unspool; families collapse; people dream (dreams within dreams); confessions are offered; and sometimes, despite all of these events, nothing happens at all. The spell of film is unique; it mirrors how gullible we are in the spell of life: our capacity to overlook or regard without consideration, to admire without criticism, to forgive or empathize with characters we wish were better, and to write off the ones we assume tainted.
When we observe how we watch these films, we can see the entire trajectory of influence in our lives. We can ask how power is simultaneously visible and invisible (and how it is acquired by both our observing and our not observing). If we slow down and consider what we’ve seen, interrogate our own reactions to it, we might not be led so compliantly, might find economic and sexual stratification vile, and discover truths told by those we are unprepared to hear from. I ask the students if American capitalism could have the same type of impacts on women as a theocracy? And how do systems of oppression redound to, and rely on modesty?
“Does the film have a moral center? I know how archaic and disputable a term like moral is, but who in this film seems ethical, who speaks the truth?”
“Deanie’s father,” a student says. He is always in a suit jacket, and I can rely on his formal attention during classes. “Because he does the right thing by cashing out of the stock market and paying for Deanie to get treatment for her mental illness.”
“And he tells her where she can find Bud at the end of the movie,” another student says.
“Maybe Bud’s mother. She doesn’t do anything wrong,” another student ventures.
I don’t criticize Bud’s mother’s obsequiousness or ask, “Could she have done something right?” We go on discussing.
“What about Ginny?” The character is the movie’s bad girl, a promiscuous flapper who’d been to art school, had an abortion (after her father broke up the relationship), has been forced to return home and is restless, dating first a gas station attendant, then a married bootlegger, constantly in battle with her father, and presumably her brother. She’s a hard subject to broach among most of these students.
She’s out of control, a perfect picture of immodesty, a violent, if reactionary truth-teller.
“She slapped her brother. That couldn’t happen here,” a student says.
“Why did she slap him?” I ask. “Why do you think?”
We watch the scene again. Bud has been dispatched to Ginny’s room in an attempt to dissuade her from going out with a date who is waiting for her at the front door. This is after the family poses for one of the best family Christmas cards ever: Ginny wearing a plush, lavender jumpsuit, smoking from a theater-length cigarette holder, her back turned to the others. After answering the door, she introduces her suitor to the family: they’re kind of dull, but you can stand them for a few minutes.
When Bud enters her room, Ginny is singing “Everyone’s talking about Mabel, she’s the talk of the town/Mabel’s willing and able/to show a guy around.” Nothing like a theme song. It does the work of Rita Hayworth singing “Put the Blame on Mame,” but is sung in private.
Bud insists that Ginny won’t go out on Christmas day, to which she reacts by slapping him three times, hard enough to bring tears to his eyes. Then she warns him: If you want to listen to Dad, go ahead. One of these days you’ll find out. You’ll find out and then god help you.
“What will he find out? Surely, it’s what her father has done to her. And isn’t it a profound incest taboo, a fear that his girlfriend will become like his sister, that keeps Bud declining Deanie’s invitations to ravish her? He has to save both his sister and Deanie from predatory, ruinous desire, but he knows he can’t. Because it’s also his desire.”
The movie is harder to watch now, with its pathologies exposed. The students begin to speak seriously about it, now that Ginny’s veiled revelation gives it gravity.
The slap sets up the New Year’s party scene, wherein Ginny is rebuffed by her father but falls prey to a wolf pack of well-suited men. All it takes is for her to drunkenly enter the men’s room and the crowd begins to gather. And it’s at this point that Bud rushes in, ineffectively, to zip up her dress and get her back home. Ginny’s tirade begins with him, but goes on to assess all the assembled men (and men generally), and it’s viciously shaming and totally spot-on:
If you weren’t my brother you wouldn’t come near me. You’re a nice boy. I know what you nice boys are like. I know, you only talk to me in the dark. In the dark. You talk to me then, don’t you? You talk to me, you’re very familiar then, aren’t you? Get away from me!
Ginny doesn’t live in the dark. She pulls the blindfold off. It doesn’t change the world, it only provides her the frenzy and velocity to knock back its rules for a while.
* * *
Both films show niceness, modesty, discretion, for what it is: a vehicle to isolate and condemn others, and the substrata of nearly every oppressive system – economic, political, social – that we don’t question. Modesty is a universal sham.
I show an early scene in Splendor in the Grass wherein Deanie asks her mother:
Mom, is it so terrible to have those feelings about a boy?
Mom: No nice girl does.
Deanie: Doesn’t she?
Mom: No. No nice girl.
Deanie: But mom, didn’t you ever, well, I mean, didn’t you ever feel that way about Dad?
Mom: Your father never laid a hand on me until we were married. And then I just gave in because a wife has to. A woman doesn’t enjoy those things the way a man does. She just lets her husband come near her in order to have children. Deanie, what’s troubling you?
Deanie: Oh nothing, mom. I’m just tired. I want to go to bed, now.
This isn’t just a squandered moment for Deanie’s mother to allow her daughter to feel normal about her high school passions; it is, rather, a conversation used to condemn her daughter, to characterize her desire as not nice, and to suggest sexual feelings are only appropriate in the service of reproduction. Moreover, the enjoyment of sex is something only for men, so Deanie might not only be written out of the realm of nice girls, she might be written out of the realm of girls entirely. (It’s no wonder then that she aggressively cuts her hair into a bob later in the film.)
The argument that sex should serve reproduction was the same argument used in the marginalization and erasure of queer people. It’s a stupid but stalwart argument, because pleasure, like beauty (beauty and pleasure are hard to separate; one promises the other), is constantly undermined by arguments for modesty, public regard.
There is another moment, one of the best in the film, between mother and daughter (after Deanie has whispered to her mother that she wants to die). Deanie is sunk in a hot bath, delirious, when her probing mother, asking her what’s wrong, enters the bathroom. At the suggestion of her mother interfering in her relationship and calling Bud directly, Deanie rises from the water in a rage. Don’t you dare! Don’t you dare, Mom! Don’t you dare! Don’t you dare! Natalie Wood’s unhinged fury, her ability to enter the moment when an adolescent has to defend what is private, and by being private, explicitly immodest, is unmatched.
Her mother, standing at the foot of the tub, asks, Had anything serious happened? Did he spoil you?
Deanie: Spoil? Did he spoil me? No, mom, I’m not spoiled.
And the terrible irony is that she’s not. These two teenagers have been deranged by the values of their parents, as nearly every generation is, so that neither Bud nor Deanie can act on their desires, and are instead, condemned to watch others do so. For all the vitriolic alarm and passive resistance to their parents’ will, they give up passion for obligation. They emerge from acute mental illness to become responsible, unenthusiastic adults. While Picnic presumably depicted a couple escaping the restrictions of a homogeneous middle-class society, Splendor in the Grass locks its protagonists in a disappointing adulthood. For Deanie, her moment of rage is a flare. She spends the last quarter of the film coming to grips with the fact that her parents are flawed, just people. Bud has the advantage of being tossed out of Yale, his father jumping from a building, and his sister, Ginny, dying in a car accident. Not much for him to tidy up.
I tell the students, “Film is our most beloved form of revolutionary deception. It defaults to suggestiveness when it could be explicit. It punishes transgressors after it lures them. It always prefers smoldering to actual fire.”
“That’s why I felt so bad when it ended,” says the student in a suit. “Both Deanie and Bud, they agreed to give up so much.”
* * *
During my office hours, students come to discuss openly with me: so much trauma, unrecognized as trauma. Encounters with violence and inflexible tradition, the violence of tradition. They are, for the most part, empathic, and wise with experience. They risk their lives to come to an American university, which in many ways is a bastion of neoliberal and dubious foreign policy initiatives, but also has its share of wildly unorthodox teachers who have fallen in love with this vivid country.
They open up at the prompting of these films by Inge. These two protagonists, American female adolescents, have taught them something, not about freedom, but how and why we are unfree, how small our dreams, for ourselves and our societies, can be. There’s nothing nice about families producing the next war fodder, the vast immiserated populations around the world. And yet we are asked to keep the pretenses of a system that quietly grinds us out of existence, to keep desire in check, to construct some faux “moral fabric” that primarily traps women behind it. The elaborate war outside my office began in the family home, in generations of nice young men and nice young women, clinging to the appearances of order, imagining that by restraining the choices of women, they can make prohibition itself virtuous.
One student, a young woman who has not taken the film class because she cannot be out so late, tells me that she’s heard a lot about the movies and wishes she could attend. She asks if I can offer it in the day. Before leaving my office, she tells me that she once saw a woman immolated on her front lawn. “Her husband did it,” she said. “I saw him in the window while his wife burned. I was thinking of writing a story.…”
* * *
Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the films discussed.
- “An Interview with Marguerite Duras,” Signs, Vol. 1, No. 2, (Winter 1975) The University of Chicago Press. [↩]