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Don’t Jell Real Well  (book review)

 Highly recommended. In stretches, astounding. And thankfully, not academic. But “Unmaking War, Remaking Men” is not all of one piece. In fact, it seems an attempt to join radical feminism and new age-ism–add in a liberal portion of left political analysis.

Feminism is the forceful part. It‘s behind the push, the conscience, the original raw voice. When soldiers, women troops, refugees, wives, war victims are lucidly grasped without props and screens, this book rocks, unsettles, converts. The reader stops–either permanently (thus the 30% one star grades here) or in profound thought. For he or she is in a zone of unspeakables, and in the grip–at least for a time, of unsurpassable anti-war writing. The male protection racket of war, patriotism, the sexualization/victimization of women soldiers are in turn smashed/exposed by Barry’s currents of defiance. (In my recollection most of this compelling writing occurrs between pp. 50-105 of this 200p book.)

The weak link is the psychological–yes New Age, terms that are used to underpin much of Barry’s content. Concepts like “core masculinity,” “the politics of empathy,” “psychopathic leadership“ and “life force“ are more aligned with the human potential movement than with radical politics. Despite Barry’s valiant attempts to politicize these terms, they must, in the end, be misleading. That they detract through their circularity soon becomes evident in the way the writing waffs into more detached coverage that, for the most part, is a duplication of Left critiquing of the wars in Iraq, Israel, and Afghanistan.

The reader gets clued into this psychological bent early via the transcendent lesson on human empathy provided by the tragic death at Bodega Bay. One’s immediate counter thought is: for every such victim there must be many Kitty Genoveses, and a mile long string of rubber necking events. And then there is the hypothetical conversation between a male marine vet and Barry, which invokes her learned capacity to empathize. Okay, beautiful, but does he want to delve into her reality? And by extension, given her reach out… is the left capable of such attention? or would most New Age advocates even begin to listen to what Barry has to say?

As to the legal “expendability” of soldiers’ lives, I do think this is a remarkable and a more material focus, but should it be separated out, especially on introduction, as a unique form of human waste? Are we to believe that the lower half of the world’s population is not expendable. Or that most soldiers (U.S. military is central here) actually serve as front line troops (only 6% do)? Or that Empire soldiers don’t cause way more deaths and suffering than they receive in kind? I think these distinctions need to marked out in the text.

But the real slippage seems most apparent in the last chapters–the mandatory Solution pages, which I was Not looking forward to. In fact the words “Buddhism“ and “Soul“ popped out at me as I skimmed forth. I doubt that Buddhism can speak to “remaking men,” and has even less to say about “unmaking war” than does the Catholic Church. But this is precisely what terms like “core masculinity” and “politics of empathy” lead to: the spiritual, the inward, the psychological, the transcendent … Their outcomes are tied to their meanings, which in political terms, means a loss of intelligence and intelligibility and, in this case, partial abandonment and subordination of a riveting critique of the reality of male power. 

The Gang of Three  (book review)

Gordon’s extended biographical work “Lives Like Loaded Guns” is certainly an engrossing read, at least while her core protagonists are still in play. (As in her Wollstonecraft bio, the remaining dramatis personae put most commit-to-finish readers into the chore mode.)

Engrossing, because right off the bat, side-taking in the Dickinson family feuds is inevitable. Gordon quickly and quite unabashedly draws her readers to her standpoint, one that I found myself soon exceeding in the sense that her silenced heroines, Emily Dickinson and Susan Gilbert Dickinson, struck me as possibly even more compelling than she makes them, and the silencers, Austin Dickinson, and the Todd couple, as undoubtedly more detestable than she makes them (but there’s none of the endearments here that characterize her earlier coverage of Leonard Woolf or the married TS Eliot.).

Strangely, it is not Emily Dickinson’s seminally deep mind or remarkable solitary life that seems to dominate the reader’s mental headlines, but rather the unexpected perversity of the Amherst villains. For Austin‘s and the Todds’ actions are emphatically scandalous, not only because they run counter to the imagined stable, detached New England town with its feminine aura, social bonds, and reserved, old time families, but more pointedly because they’re appallingly divisive. In fact, on this stage, they are the actors, while Emily and Susan are the acted upon.

Mabel Loomis Todd, the least pernicious of the three, is the Exceptional woman, the seductive, beguiling persona, with a flair for self-promotion, and worldly ambition. She views Amherst and the Dickinsons reductively as in the palm of her hand, ripe for social exploitation. Like her victim, Susan Dickinson, she is aligned with the rising women of the 19th century, but unlike her nemesis, she doesn’t even sniff female solidarity. What Mabel wants is what Austin Dickinson has: social power, sway, success. And any search she may engage in for knowledge and creativity seems to be only in terms of upward mobility.

But she is not Lady Macbeth, not any more than Lady Macbeth herself is. She is as much Other to the men she “manages” as is Susan and Emily. She’s a sycophant and mechanical mistress for Austin, while pandering to her own pimp husband’s unlimited neediness. All that she possesses, her body, mind, intercessions, and plottings are far more useful to Austin and David than to herself. She breathes life into their lives, while her desired mega-career is scattered about in high and low minded activities associated with the vicious circle of the publishing world. She is the “Somebody” to Emily‘s “Nobody,” chummy with the ruling class, starring on the travel lecture circuit, and if not precisely “dreary,“ at least not a credible packager and handler–Emily refused to meet the frenetic adulterers in the room below–of Dickinson’s work. In sum, hers is not much more than a custodial relationship in an incestual world of sex, fame, and money.

David Todd, her science professor husband, is a man who’s comfortable with all of his natural male instincts. Despite his both roguish and cultivated demeanor, he relishes power, and firmly comprehends that it is male-bound. Women are for screwing, men are for sucking up to. So, in the male time-honored tradition, he names Mabel wife, lover, mistress, and mother, while paying obsequious homage to his town father Austin, to whom, as ‘son’ and protégée, he suggests the freedom of a sailor with easy access to women. In concert, the two men thus become the chief violators of Amherst and the Dickinsons. Austin can write off his subverting wife, and shack up with David’s wife–all in the name of freedom, and the exercise of true passion as God designed. Meanwhile, Mabel is expected to work feverishly in support of David’s astronomer career, both locally, through her inside track to Austin, and worldwide through th demanded outside track of her globe-trotting, flesh pursuing husband.

Gordon lands many scoring jabs at Emily‘s brother, Austin, but few reeling blows. By a degree, what she seems to miss is the full extent of his autocratic social power. As the true patriarch of an ennobled family, Austin wields a mastery over family, town, and campus life. His disciplined and dignified persona, his inherent leadership, his lofty upright posture, and his earnest religiosity, compel both respect and trepidation. So, it is he who must answer for the ruptures that descend on the Dickinsons, and more specifically for the racket that is so damaging to his wife, Susan, and his sister, Emily. His abuse of power, his rift with his own moral sense, his multiple strategies for concealment and obfuscation, and the ultimate venality at seeing himself in adultery as an instrument of liberty and divine ecstasy, speak of a life that is far more than a loaded gun.

Under the thumb of this clique of power-mongers are Emily Dickinson, , and Susan Gilbert, both already sentenced to life by a male defined world, one for being a shameful female invalid, the other for being a dupe of the marriage market. The plotters simply intensify their confinement, their inhibitions, their forced silence, thus driving them more deeply inward, into further mental slavery/illness. But Emily’s interiorization and mystification, of course, are double-edged as are Susan’s regressions, and private perceptions. Both women grasp the root of their oppression and respond subversively especially in their takes on marriage as intolerably constrictive, enervating, and possessive. Emily’s hubris gets through via her poetry’s cutting cool irony, its distinctiveness, seriousness, disjunctive impacts, and strange genius; Susan’s through the willful refusals of a wife, mother, plaything, and ornament.

But if Susan SEEMS (her story is limited) unwavering as a marriage resister, and a low key isolated feminist, Emily is anything but consistent and ordinary. For Emily’s confusing and bedeviling response to male power is both boldly critical–and worshipful (she did support Austin’s efforts to win Susan). “We are the Flower–Thou the Sun!” she writes, referring to herself and her Master/Father/Lover whose celestial light invokes growth and passionate love. Which indeed makes her “Nobody” suspect.

And implies no firm outlook on life. Or an incapacity to grasp the depths of male control. Thus, in lieu of a material base for thought, we get woman as essence, as mystery, as impassioned slave, or the polar opposite of the male. This is not St. Teresa’s mysticism, which contains the female in her divinity, but more certainly belongs to the fear and awe inspired by eight generations of Dickinson Fathers, which have culminated in Emily’s father, Edward, and in Austin’s gang of three, who have conspired to drive her to the edge of masochism, and into further self-scorn.        


Goes Long, Falls Short   (book review)

If the strength of Seymour-Jones’s “Painted Shadow” gets at Vivienne’s oppression, its weakness is that it does not get after it. It delves and dips into the depth of her character, but tends to reside closer to its cloudy surface. Thus the smog of details, psychology, and clique reports. Thus the looping assessments: Eliot is a certified gay on one page, subsequently oft a “perhaps gay;” Vivienne is a true writer, even Tom’s co-writer, and on subsequent pages deplorably less talented than her Bloomsbury pals.

Vivienne Haight-Wood cannot take center stage here–and be truly identified for the reader because she’s viewed with too close a lens. We’re given about as much of her that is known (I assume), but as valuable as it may be, it is mostly unconnected to any central, persuasive, or forming idea. What’s mainly missing is a structure, a perspective, a means of concision, that would impart to her life the compelling quality that it undoubtedly carried.

Although Vivienne was spared the battered-woman syndrome, she sure did live out the buffeted-woman syndrome–that is, she was sentenced to live in a determinedly male world, one that welcomed her, when at all, as a cipher. She floated, boneless, through it, upon it, against it, with it, always swept and swished away from self-direction. Virginia Woolf who is depicted here much more as a gossip than as an incisive intellect was another buffeted woman, but with will and good fortune was able to plant herself a little more firmly. Though Vivienne is Virginia, the parallel references here are inevitably made to Eliot. Who exists from across a wide gap–and from on high.

Of course, the absent structure of “Painted Shadow” is a steady consciousness of male social power. This is what would drive the work, enliven it, form it–and yes, shorten it. Vivienne’s marriage to a manipulative and deceiving homosexual, her sexual use by a womanizing philosopher, her recruitment by the British Fascists, or her betrayal by an elite, and often gay, literary mob, are mere expressions of the sheer male state that imprisons her.

Vivienne lived in an era of two brutally male conflagrational wars; suffered educational, legal, and economic systems that eclipsed women’s reality; experienced rising unilateral technologies which were masculine in invention and use; lived a sexed life governed by nakedly male sexologists; and stomached a cultural world in which men held all the keys.

As a woman under the influence, no wonder she is an enigma of direct rebellion and clinging worship of what she fears, hates, needs, and even loves. What most impresses her is what most terrifies her–male prestige, male force. TS Eliot as menace, as her potential killer, is also the hero she must adore, and can never stop loving. He is her fascist, he is her poet, her king. And his Furies of guilt are like pesky fleas, compared to the whipping swirling tentacles of the power which run through him (and Bertie, et al) as a member of a totalistic club, and into the life–of his wife.

Seymour-Jones certainly gets much of this–and gets a lot of it down. Quite possibly, she grasps it all–and more, but her life, like Vivienne’s, intersects with a prevailing social order which is as male now as it was then. Her academia is chiefly dismissive of the strong female voice, and of a radical feminist interpretations of a woman’s life. So, we may have to wait–and wait, for the definitive biography of Vivienne Haight Wood one that would not require its author to twist in the wind.    

The Alcoholic Writer  (movie review)

“Lost Weekend” is almost beyond reproach–it sends a strong no-preach message; has a wonderful, sometimes offbeat, script, a wide character range underscored by a marvelous supporting cast (kudos to Phillip Terry) and an often moving lead (Ray Milland) who projects despair and cynicism; its subtle humor never detracts, while its Manhattan

setting always adds. But despite its wide appeal–or perhaps because of, it does tend to hug the surface, not delving too deeply or generalizing too much the downward spiral of an alcoholic.

One senses this in the ending–if not in the movie’s general drift. Don is not the typical alcoholic. Not by status, nor by class. He is a writer first, an alcoholic second or, more pointedly, he is the alcoholic writer–a unique if not an elite individual. He is not part of the “concrete jungle.” His novel, “The Bottle,” may reach alcoholics of his own class (although more likely not if it truly is a “horror story”,) but not the hoi polloi of his imaginings–for “Don Birnham, Esquire” is as apart from them as he is from Gloria. And his alcoholic ordeal is essentially private. He can hide away in his comfortable digs, pass for a gentleman, pass for normal, dwell on his inadequacies, torment himself over his failures, and escape AA type meetings–and hospital/jails too. Individuation is what sets him apart, which is why his “merry go round” can stop with his will to art, and not through any social program or institution. In finding his Self, he has gotten to his core–which is not a “sponge” but a mind no longer “suspended outside his window,” one that knows itself as a novelist. In a word, he is secure and valued, an unusual position for an alcoholic.

As a writer the causes of his alcoholism are also atypical. For the artist’s identity can exact a heavy penalty on its members. On the other side of success, genius, and talent, is failure, madness, and doubt. Fame may be a phony and distasteful social construct, but it is no less real for that. The basic set up is the spotlight or bust. Winner or loser, known or unknown–these shape and inform the writer’s role. And, no doubt, Don Birnam’s alcoholism is rooted in this role—it goes with the territory. Writers–especially the losing–and male, take to it–at least that’s the myth, and it’s still strong today. Suicide is also part of that identity: on his 30th birthday, Don buys a gun for after ten years in the city he came to conquer–he was a hot, young genius at Cornell writing in the Hemingway mode–he still hadn’t finished a novel or a short story. His drama is precisely this: creation is salvation, failure to create is damnation. This ugly dichotomy is entrenched in him to the point of drink and suicide. And a whole lot of self-doubt along the way. “I passed as a genius,“ he says, and “if I’d gotten a job, I’d be married.” The painful scene at the Manhattan Hotel with Helen’s parents accentuates this. “There are two Dons, the drinker and the writer,” he says, but there is only one Don, the failed artist—his alcoholism being of that rare kind that only writing can cure.

Finally, a special alcoholic needs special support, and Don is hardly cheated. Helen’s support is unconditional, emotional, and romantic–a little sappy at times, given the drain, but real and convincing in the final scenes where she almost wills his transformation in rain-drenched muse fashion. Wick provides a decade’s worth of room and board and puts up with all the lies, moanings, and self-absorption of his talented brother. Don has to admit of his conventional brother: “It is a big heart.” Nat, the bartender, offers warmth, friendship, chides, realism–and the typewriter on which “The Bottle” will be written. (He also rejects Don’s shabby treatment of Helen–and Gloria). Gloria, of the hex sign, gives far more to Don than she receives–including style/laughs more lost on him than her money. Only Bim of “Hangover Plaza” sees our wretch objectively and with his big time cynicism… who knows… maybe puts one more lousy drunk back on his feet.       


Beyond Revenge (MOVIE REVIEW)

“The Bride Wore Black” is a cogent, strongly conceived, and executed film. Truffaut makes us see what he sees–in detail. The cast of characters is invariably attuned as in Jeanne Moreau’s protagonist and Charles Denner’s Fergus, and never stereotyped, down to Bliss’s doorman, the niece, and the pacing prison guard pried on in the finale. There’s some humor above the undercurrents in the early going but there’s no exit from Julie Kohler’s wrenching and redemptive journey. This in a sense is “The Story of Adele H” in reverse with the impulse to justice moving outward, not inward.  


For simply put–and the film is simply put, here the violated makes the violators pay. Julie Kohler must echo the indifference of the five-man clique, (all hunters and womanizers) who carelessly murdered her bridegroom, with a retaliatory plan. For these men live life with impunity; they are free to pursue their professions, free to prey on women, and free to be free–of memory and guilt.

Julie’s retribution begins when her suicide attempts are foiled by her mother. But a patched-up life is not on the table: she tells her confessor that as a dead woman, she can only “do what must be done.” The means to which are as obvious as the criminals themselves–she will kill as they kill, and she will impersonate female to enter their sexist lives. For retribution is the last thing each expects, and female worship the first thing each expects.

Bliss is living the life of a playboy. To him females are fluff, and more or less whores. He records for his pals the sound of his fiancé’s rubbing stockings as she crosses her legs. He is fascinated by Kohler: “my fiancé is lovely, but….” She is an “apparition”–one that easily leads him to his “accidental” death on a balcony.

Mr. Coral “takes refuge in dreams“ exclusively of females. He’s so perfect a dupe of Kohler’s arranged drama that he can even pass off a remark practically announcing it. Preparing for their bachelor room rendezvous, he hides nude paintings and during it furtively peeks at Kohler’s legs. While imbibing his poisoned drink and sensing its soporific effects he coos: “you are as magic,” “you made me drink a love potion” and confides that he’s “only had” a few women in his life. But it’s too late for Kohler’s wisdom: “lovers are made and not born.” For none of his pleas as to innocence in “love” or murder impact Kohler.

“I may not look like Don Juan but politicians make it good with women” says Morane, whose furtive sexual glances and dismissal of his “perfect wife” are slid back a bit in comparison to the first targets–but whose memory is equally occluded. For momentarily, like a child, he finds himself locked up in his own closet, a victim of Kohler’s ruse. “For you it’s in the past, but I have to live through it every night” she says, as she seals his fate with masking tape.

Fergus, the commercial designer, is both the most challenging mark, and the quintessential dupe. Besides exuding the artist confidence around women, he’s the consummate “skirt-chaser,” and the master female connoisseur. And such a glib promoter of these feats… talk, talk… as to rattle even his steely new model. But his memory of Kohler is so maximally muddled that he invites her to model in the role of Diana the Huntress–live arrows and all, and proceeds to let himself fall in love with his scantily-dressed model. This, of course, has two obvious effects: he falls in love (is rejected, and out of anger and fantasy paints Kohler in the nude on his wall as he straddles his bed for support) and soon thereafter is murdered, an arrow to the back.

Kohler, her nude image left unblackened, thus sets up her final coup against the imprisoned Delvaux. As to Corey, Fergus’ sporting pal and finger-man in Kohler’s arrest…. the detective spotlights him when inquiring whether her list of villains is now closed. She replies: “Yes. He’s the sort of man who can’t keep his hands off women, but I would not kill him.”

Which means that Corey is worthy of some list, but not her specific one which, of course, has led her to prison in any case. But her statement also implies her revenge is by no means simply revenge. It belongs to the social web the film represents. There is a unifying spirit behind her, which starts with opposition to the hunter/womanizer dyad and extends to male violence in general. Her primary revenge is for the unseen, starting with herself, and extending to all women, and only ending with her groom. She never injures another female in her quest–to the point of risking her plan to save Miss Becker, and she appears to subtly perceive the plight of the women belonging to the misogynists’ lives she tracks.

Kohler is not a femme fatale in any sense of the word. There is no myth, no magic, no nether region of the psyche here. She does what has to be done because she has lost her world and the perpetrators must pay. But at each turn, she must continue to dodge bullets other than the one aimed at her in Delvaux’s crosshair as she descended the church’s steps. She must continually accommodate herself to sexualizing projectiles, which is akin to a form of hazing–and a further loss of life. That this erotizicing makes these men complicit in their own specific deaths, does not fill the loss. However, being projected as nothing but an image, does broaden, deepen, and strengthen her motivation.

So, the film asks: who murders? who obsesses? who controls? And the answers lie in the very male scheme of things which Kohler is called upon to undo. It’s only unfortunate that the cost of the undoing is in the doing which must bring a life sentence.  


Portrait of an Author-ess (movie review)

Myra Hudson, in “Sudden Fear,” has a self-directed life: she’s a successful playwright, an heiress in charge of a large fortune, and the center of an artsy San Francisco social circle. She’s an astute professional, sharp, intense, dignified, and absorbed in her career/life. However…god forbid, she ain’t married.


So a second life plot opens up for her when she encounters Lester Blaine–the actor she has dismissed for not being “a romantic leading man” for her most recent smash Broadway hit. As a woman of around 40, she doesn’t possess the social or personal props to confidently slip into or deny romance or marriage, and most certainly is typecast as an old maid, if not by all the world, than at least by the calculating mind of Lester Blaine, who must rely on her desperation to wield his narrative.

For when Blaine enters her train (to San Francisco) he starts a train of events, none of which will be in her favor. His “play,“ which might be called “Halfway to Hell” displaces her “Halfway to Heaven.“ It will understandably seem to Myra, and to a lesser extent the viewer, as a light romantic drama. For despite his raw physicality, his shifty demeanor, Lester manages to appear mild in manner, polite, and poised past any vengeance for what appeared to be a massive ego slight in his bolting stage exit. He’s also surprisingly literate–and rather convincingly romantic.

At least enough to easily win Myra over. For he represents to her a lucky chance at a long missed passion. Her receptivity is so apparent that it even worries the train porter who helps the blissful couple out with Blaine’s little confidence game. And Myra’s descent to type is soon furthered by her quickened sympathy for Lester’s life story (he’s the son of a coal miner–a war vet who played sad Lenny in “Of Mice and Men”)–his standard expectations soon becoming hers.

She glides along, accommodating herself to his charm, his fun sporty ways; introduces him to her fancy social set, and even arranges a party for him. Which he uses to accelerate his marriage trap, by staging, through his absence from this devotedly prepared celebration, his immense unworthiness in Myra’s life. “I am no match for you.” “I have no proper place in your life,” he tearfully exclaims, baggage in hand, looking down on her from atop his staircase, in his most self-pitying display.

Which Myra is not only duped by, but which calls out her deepest passions: “Without you, I have NOTHING.” As in no career, no success, no life; as in love superceding her whole existence. His charade has paid off, for Myra is flat out susceptible even to so obviously a phony, an inapt, a suitor.

No wonder Lester’s certainty and suavity. No wonder he has no need to confide in her, inquire into her career, nor even respect her professional’s authority. One irony is that the “good actor” doesn’t have to be a very good actor at all in his own ’play.’ Another is that a well-established upper class arts professional cannot begin to opine on a lower class fledgling actor. So it is, that Blaine can disarm her mind, her work, her name, her money, her independence all by a simple, casual plot.

But the powerful obloquy of the single state combined with Lester’s male prerogatives, are not solely responsible for Myra’s capitulation. Because her own social power, while it may not affect Blaine much, can work against her. She senses herself in charge despite all her accommodations to him. She is also too confident to question her take on him, even when it’s clear that her lawyer, friends, and even Irene, Lenny’s ex, do grasp his intentions. Indeed fame can offer a bit too much hubris, as in Myra quoting Nietzsche’s “live dangerously” to spark Lester to action. To which he counters: “He’s dead.”

But thanks to the twists and turns of the suspense portion of “Sudden Fear,” we soon learn that Myra’s identity, as thin as it may seem under the pressure of romance, is not squelched. For Lester’s demonic play/plot begins to unravel, thanks to Myra’s (the writer) Dictaphone machine. And, if with too many tortuous steps, she does begin to exhort her previous authority.

In the end, she grasps that her courage for revenge, is a means and not an end (she cannot obliterate Blaine or herself) in confronting and recapturing her abandoned identity. Which in the film’s final moments: “It’s Irene, STOP!” is even amplified through her powerful desire to save the sinning femme fatale–another typecast woman, one who is being mistaken for herself–from her own intended death sentence. She can’t save this unknown sister, but she now purposely strides through the deserted, sinister street, alone, but a bold author once again.  


Sexology 101 (review of Hitchcock’s “Marnie”)

Is the refusal of male touch a crime? a disease? If so, who says so? Who has the right to say so? A sexologist? A psychologist? Both of these “experts” are obsessed with female “frigidity.” They see the “frigid” woman as a challenge on the one hand and an interesting specimen on the other. Why? Because they are frightened by the mere thought of independent women.

In Hitchcock’s “Marnie“, it is a successful businessman, who employs the power and authority of the twin practices. He performs the “science” of the former, and religiously reads the texts of the latter. In other words, he is a gentleman who, as is his custom–with a little boost from sex expert, will have his way with women. What he believes he needs, is what he demands. The more resistant and repulsed the prey, the more thrilling and imperial the predator.

In such a scenario, social reality must be brushed aside so that psychology can prevail. Marnie is not viewed as a victim of sex abuse and rape but rather as suffering from the traumatic memory of a bloody defense of her mother. In fact, all the material conditions of Marnie’s upbringing (poverty, neglect) are shunted aside–except as a point of her further vulnerability. That her mother just happens, mind you, to be prostituted, and battered on behalf of and defense of her daughter is thus of no interest to sexology, psychology, Hitchcock, or Mark Rutland, nor is his her iron-willed male resistance or her general state of violation.

The frigid blond daughter is the prize, the star, the sexologist’s dream girl. She is the one worth saving–for men, for “science” She has a destiny as a wife, as an object, as a trophy. Her therapy, which includes a honeymoon rape, is crucial to her subordination, and to her reprogramming. Her “inhibitions” must be repressed if she is to learn Correct Sexual Behavior.

What say is Marnie’s in all this? None, she is silenced. She is free to be forced. She’s no more than Mark’s foreplay, an end for his relentless pursuit. It’s prison or marriage/sex so she can only surrender to his life. Yet this is a woman who has the guts to pick up a gun and shoot her own injured, very dear horse. She’s a woman who has existed for years on her own, living off her own wits and talents. Her language, her mother’s language, sometimes reach a fully libratory key, a passionate rage which few viewers can deny, dismiss, or scorn.

But Hitchcock’s offers his full weight to Mark Rutland. In mock tribute, he give her the movie’s title. For to both men, independent women are an anathema. (Mark is magnified in the final shot, Marnie shrunken) 

 

The Stalker (movie review)

There’s been a slew of bad cops in film noir, but none quite like Webb Garwood (Van Heflin) in “The Prowler.” He’s the cop no woman ever wants to call when she needs help. You might say he’s a prowler cop, or better still a glorified stalker.

But alone at midnight in her big hacienda, and frightened by a possible peeping tom, it’s Susan Gilvray’s (Evelyn Keyes) fate to call for the police. This is Garwood’s Entry. Cocky, smug, indifferent, intimidating, womanizing, his looming presence and prowess accentuated in the dead-of-night shadows by his tight-fitting black uniform, he comes on more like a paramilitary than a law enforcer.

It’s obvious that Garwood is not Frank Chambers (John Garfield) in “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” whose single motive, despite the plot twists in the end, is to win over the beautiful wife of a much older, doddering, roadside burger joint owner. No Garwood here almost instantly sizes up the whole situation in a few minutes. His master plan is for the possession of a wife, the defeat of her rich, radio celeb husband, who he immediately names a wimp to his rescuing knight, and to seize from him the means of financing his dream Las Vegas motor court.

And unlike Frank Chambers, too, he gets no help at all from the young attractive wife. Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes) here is the precise opposite of Lana Turner’s femme fatale in “Postman.” She’s genuine inside and out and incapable of plotting her way out of her marriage. To boot, she is most powerfully herself whenever she sees through and stands strong against Garwood’s wiles, intents, and lies. In fact, mostly her relationship with him is underwritten by varying degrees of resistance. If she’s a pushover, a dupe, or ingratiating at times, it’s either because her character mode has been switched over to plot mode., or because she’s up against a man who is well-practiced in the arts of romantic deception, and masculine manipulation.

Garwood is not only in stark contrast to Susan, but to his police partner, Bud Crocker (John Maxwell), his wife Grace, Susan’s in-laws, and almost all the characters he encounters. They’re generous-spirited and almost saintly by comparison. But, ironically, it is he who lives in the Hotel Angela. Here he has a large muscle-builder poster on his wall (he drinks milk rather than booze), and a dominant black shooting target with a bullet-riveted torso from his champion sharp-shooter days. In this room, he lazes about in self-absorption, toys with his plots, as he does with things like shavers and phone receivers—and Susan herself, whose defeats he celebrates by tossing spitballs into the light globe above his bed, reminiscent of his heroic basketball days.

In short, he’s a snark despite his expansive front. He peeps in Susan’s windows, he repeatedly alarms her with his police search lights, and he pops into her life on the merest whim. She is nothing more to him than a conquest and a medium to defeat her prestigious husband. The murder he accomplishes and the one he attempts are both too vile for words. And when Susan utterly exposes him, this self-pitying bore can only answer: “I’m no worse than anyone else.”

In the end, unlike Frank Chamber’s (Garfield) “dust you are” lover’s death in the presence of a forgiving priest, Garwood gets buried ignominiously in dust. Susan, unlike Cora Smith ( Lana Turner), who dies along with her unborn baby, in a car accident, emerges from a traumatic childbirth with a new baby girl companion, the baby that Garwood assumed would be his son. Ha!

Half Feminist, Half Foucault  (book review)

Half stellar, half obscure writing. It can be classic feminist or it can be abstruse academics. Simple enough, the female body as a projection screen for male culture–but Bordo doesn’t exactly call it “male” culture, and perhaps in so failing, opens the door to all the obfuscation.

Bordo’s Foucault filter is supposed to shape her analysis, but I doubt it does. It seems that whenever she cites him, she invokes a dense, sophist, and pretentious language which is foreign to her effective and lucid prose, and certainly alien to the vast majority of her readers who, if anything like me, begin to experience rather intense frustration.

This dissonance must be more than compliance to academic writing.

What I think is at stake here is Bordo’s difficulty with radical feminism. She says she invokes Foucault for the complexity of his thought, something both he and she fine lacking in Second-wave feminism. At points in her essays and lectures (which constitute this book), she even directly instructs feminism via Foucault.

The question is: what feminism is she instructing, what feminism does she find simplistic? It must be the very feminism that she herself chiefly adopts–liberal feminism. Radical feminism, with its deeper analysis and political stances, are what she avoids. Thus her need for and reliance on the academic star, Michael Foucault (as in Freud of old)

But what Foucault acknowledges is that same liberal feminism, one which either rejects or compartmentalizes feminist issues. How can it begin to address the female body as a projection screen if it denies that culture is male, or that the powerfully projective male sexual institutions of pornography, prostitution, and rape exist– or, if at all, exists outside of mainstream culture. Or how about the skirting of broadly influential cultural phenomena like the rise of sexology, the sexual revolution, and the onslaught of new reproductive technology.

This said, when Bordo speaks from herself, she often cannot help crossing the liberal-radical divide. And when she does, “Unbearable Weight” soars from brilliance and courage. And her partial exposes of post-modernism, in that same voice, are lucid and accurate.

But reader, as soon as you sport that Fou word, or maybe the phrase “the male gaze” you’re smack in the middle of liberal murk, so skip this verbiage–or run for the hills, where there are maple trees that make far more sense.

Mother Time (book review)

“Mother Millett” is distinctly personal, distinctly political, and distinctly Kate Millett. It speaks to the who of mother through daughter Kate, and to the question of who gets to speak for her when she is presumed (by hospitals and family members) incapable of speaking for herself. Nursing homes, confinement, age-ism, human rights all arise–in this symbiotic relationship between Kate and her mother–as issues here.

The family tensions that drive these issues make MM an absorbing read. Kate’s radicalism, lesbianism, and mental patient activism are up against the liberal positions of her professional married sisters Sal and Mallory. And also against her mom, who having raised her three daughters as a single mother, and embraced both stances, is caught in the middle.

Mother Millett is the focus, though. She is mother in a culture of motherlessness. Not the visible mother honored once a year, but the invisible mother that is kept from all of us. The one whose acts and works are minimized or unknown, whose identity is unheroic and obscure, whose ideas and values remain unfathomed. For how many mothers did Anita Hill’s televised testimony strike up a bond or realization with their daughters, or in this case renew an existing, if often strained, bond? Yet Kate’s mother was an introductory force in her own early radicalism; she fully supported, after some resistance, her lesbianism, and she set the model for Kate’s unmarried independent state with her own.

I think the key to Kate’s connection to her mom during these several weeks of crisis care is her insistence on her mom’s social/public identity and her full human rights in a culture which would otherwise deprive her, and prey on her incapacity and lowly old woman status. Mother Millett will not join the community of ghosts at St. Ann’s Nursing Home. Nor will she permit her family to make decisions for her, no matter the established norm, nor their good intentions. Her rights are endowed on her for her civic existence, not her private status.

When Kate speaks up for her mom, she does not speak for her. She certainly engages in way too much self-criticism and self-questioning to permit this to happen. Which is also why her sometimes seeming harsh criticism of the married half of the family seems so strikingly to the point. In fact, she almost embraces their opposing stances as often as she does her own in the long flux of emotional and philosophical inner and outer debate that constitutes the impact of a Millett’s persona.

“Mother Millett” might not be the high wire act of some of other Millett works, which is not to say that it doesn’t crackle, but it moves right along, giving a boost to one’s awareness of age-ism, disability, human rights and the limits of liberalism. And let’s not forget the convincing sense of place in this work because St. Paul, the Wellington, the parks along the river, the old family home on Selby St. (as I recall) combine to drive home this in depth portrait.   


Under Freud’s Thumb (movie review: “David and Lisa”)

Poor Mrs. Clemens! One more castrating mom to add to our culture’s most wanted list. She’s wanted for turning her son, David, into an “obsessive-compulsive.” By depriving him of love, pushing him towards success and achievement; by being more dominant than her milk toast husband; by being sexy but asexual, beautiful but cold, she must suffer the hostility of not only her son, but to a lesser extent, her husband, and her son’s doctors–add too her son’s fellow “inmate,” a sex-crazed teenager, who has “knocked up 13 girls,” and whose mom is a hooker.

Anyway, David is deathly afraid of time and death, and he associates these with his upper class mother. Because she is unfeeling, non-communicative, and non-protective, touch itself can kill him. If he is emotionless, it’s because his mother is. If he is totally shut off to the world, than his perfectionist mom‘s to blame. If he cannot develop, it is, in Freudian fashion, because his mother lords it over his father, thus making David mom-dependent, and his father, David’s way into the larger world, “nothing but a marshmallow.” So it is that Mrs. Clemens is both ice and earth, remote and engulfing, unloving and clinging–to the boy she gave birth to. It’s mother-time and mother-love which make touch terrorizing to David. And his outright expressed hatred of her is viewed by him as a step to healing: “parents don’t like you when you’re sick, and when your well, either.” Mrs. Clemens, simply put, is too much mother, who mothers too little.

The true mother is the woman holding her son in the railway station, on the night that David escapes his toxic parents’ home. This mother’s love is unconditional, sensual, and giving and David claims her as his very own mother. With her as a mom he might in Dr. Swinford’s words “take a chance and open up and let love in.” Interesting how a scene of blissful maternity can jump start David’s recovery.

Lisa, his “patient” and dear female friend is also a prop to his wellness. Lisa, unlike David, has no history, no mother to blame for her multiple personalities. She is free-floating, adorable, innocent, child-like (several years younger than David) and earthy in her dark features. She’s capable of a kind of psychic communication, rhyme-speech, and expressed intimacy. She is, in other words, a blessing to David. She’s a “pearl of a girl,“ in his words–words that awaken sensual awareness in both–because she is spontaneous and vulnerable and serves as David’s inner self or soul. One of her telling rhymes is “rhymes, time, slime” which seems to point to David’s second birth, and to herself as one of its mediators.

Dr. Swinford or “Alan” to his “students” or “inmates” is another of David’s safe mediators. He fathers David’s development through a kind of liberal, humanistic, “do your own thing” approach. Any constraint is suspect, and creativity is the ultimate form of therapy at his private institution. He is satisfactory to David despite the fact that he passively absorbs more hostility from him than does his hapless father from his mother. His non-judgmental guidance, in a sense, seems to make him a third female kind of figure in David’s recovery, but Dr Swinford, in his professional capacity—he’s a psychiatrist and a more convincing father figure whose role and profession he will follow–also serves as model for David’s autonomy.

That autonomy or rebirth is equivalent to recovery or David’s integration into love, authority, and society. This means, above all else, a transcendence of his mother and his worldly birth. But doesn’t his rejection of his mother include his rejection of “rhyme, time, slime?” So how will he accept the world without accepting time? Perhaps because he’s discovered male time–and male identity (his terror of freak shows and the Geroge/Georgina character). This newly discovered order is controlled, ordered, authorized– the very stuff that he has abhorred and ridiculed to date, but which now can be viewed differently from a select identity. He has entered Freud’s history (the clock is fixed) and left his mother’s behind.

The towering museum columns between which the final scene is shot is proof of his elevation into manhood. The tall blond young man walks off into the morning Light (why did it take him all night to reach the museum?) having dispelled the darkness, hand and hand with his little brown-eyed girl. Isn’t it ironic that in the mutual rescue scene at the museum that it is David who allows Lisa to grasp his hand when–his rejection of her in the piano room is why she escaped and is endangered–she should be allowing him to touch her.


The Sex Liberal Frame (movie review)

The undoing of “Cafe Society” is its sex liberal frame. Defillito interprets the facts of this NYC sex scandal through his lens. To a sex liberal there is literally no such thing as immoral, or coerced sex because women, by nature, are sex, and want more sex with more men. So, any criticism of or attempt to regulate sex is viewed as hypocritical, moralistic, puritanical, bourgeois, and constraining. And women’s refusal or rejection of sex is deflected as sexual repression, uptightness, and misplaced guilt that the sex liberal is only to eager to liberate. Thus, the male institutions of prostitution, and pornography thrive because the sex liberal makes a total mockery of the concept of consent. 

“Cafe Society” is oppressive, sexist–and unconvincing, because it subscribes to, upholds, and promotes this masculinist view. The set-up is this: the hero is attractive, romantic, boyishly naive, whose male status is a little questionable; the women who populate his world are screaming caricatures; the legal system that “victimizes” him is hypocritical and corrupt. The point is the manufacturing of sympathy for a rich playboy who pimps and batters his fiancé. Only a sex liberal would want to push the envelope this far.

The deadly center of “Cafe Society” is Mickey Jelte’s porn collection, hidden behind a velvet curtain in his stylish pad. It acts as an ideological center for Mickey and his pimp friends–and yes also indicates his charmingly shy, boyish nature. He even naively shows it to Pat Ward on their “first date” which signals her women’s true nature, initiating her seduction/strip act. Porne-graphy means depiction of a whore. But it is at Jelte’s famous parties that there is a literal joining of this collection to a bevy of Mickey’s hired whores–”Can you send a few horses down to my stable for a few bachelors,” who gyrate in their underwear as mounds of white flesh, in prelude to providing willing receptacles for his buddies.

So Mickey’s porn collection is revealed to be nothing but a control center for male domination over women. His women do what the photos instruct them to do, become the pictures, and become the sex. They smile, they want it, they do it. They are a pool of girls for sex, parties, and clubs. As Ray Davione makes clear “They’re already in pictures. I put them in business.” They are referred to as chicks, mice, and stray dogs who are headed back to the gutter once used up. And all women in the film vanish, if not by this sleight of hand than by outright stereotype. The bossy rich mom, who suckles her son and withdraws his money over his trampy Pat; the line-up of raunchy female fans in the Manhattan Criminal Court building who greet wronged Mickey with greedy eyes and scorchingly red lips; the horrible caricature of Dorothy Kilgallen who stands for the dirty, prosecuting press, of “ranting righteousness” who has the nerve to call Mickey a “pin-sized punk” and a “hapless little hero” in “elevator shoes;” and the city’s top madam Erica Steele, a pastured slut now effectively impersonating a male role.

Then there’s Pat Ward who, given the actual historic material, should have been the film’s courageous protagonist. Instead, she gets stuck inside the sex liberal script where her poor Ave D background, the rape by her father‘s boss, her lost child, get passed over as she is. Yes, she is permitted to evoke a wee bit of sympathy, but only because that filthy DA’s office uses her (which also deflects from the director’s sweet guy hero’s use and abuse of her). But it’s her desperation, isolation, and hope of love that makes her accept a ring that gives Mickey literal ownership of her body. Pat says to Kale: “I’m going to go to work for awhile. He and Davione know a lot of men who like to be with pretty girls and wouldn’t mind paying for the privilege.” But Mickey’s game is up even sooner “Do you really think I would marry you? You’re a prostitute.” So what Greenbaum’s rape did to Pat at age 16, Mickey’s pimping and battering did to her at 18: they repudiated her life, setting up her repeated attempts at suicide. So that in her star prosecution witness role she continually blames herself: “I will tell every girl not to make the same Mistake I have.” And later says “I’m the most famous whore in New York City now.”

The actual Pat Ward was an aspiring actress (born Sandra Wisotsky) who lived inside a similar plot but only up to the point at which she turns against Mickey. In reality, she told actor/comedian Martha Raye of her plight, and Raye reported it to DA Hogan. In one of her suicide attempts, she was rescued by the police, who broke her story to the press. During her trial she said “I am going to go away and bury myself” and this is what she did, and ended up dead before her 30th birthday.

So what we are left with is a male love fest, a milieu in which prostitutes both serve as proof of their owner’s balls, and as the exchange item that creates the male bond. It’s obvious that Mickey finds much more pleasure in the company of his antagonist, Jack Kale, and even with the hardened master pimp and cynic PR slime, Ray Davione, than he does with Pat Kale. And Mickey’s bachelor club “the Cafe Society, Lmt” is a badge of manhood to him that wasn’t achieved by his stint as a bugle boy in the army (in which his brother died a hero) nor by his 5’3” stature. All his scapegoat tears in the final scene show no remorse–nor any hatred for the 1000 pimps he‘s serving for. (not 40 years, but 21 months)

Defellito makes his movie’s point plain: “What’s worse pimping for one woman, or manipulating public for moral correction?” Could any statement be more in line with sex liberals–or man’s oldest oppression?  


Cupid Exposed  (review of Truffaut’s “The Soft Skin”

The soft skin, or the cupidous male mind? Which comes first? This is a critical question here for the refusal to grasp it can have dire repercussions. For Pierre’s eroticizing of Nicole may be natural, private, and individual but it is hardly static. For what begins in Pierre’s mind, as an arrow, ends up in his own body–as a bullet.

Truffaut seems neither to blame Nicole, Franca, or Pierre for this outcome, but he undoubtedly puts the onus on Pierre. Even though to sexualize someone may seem to be a small act, it nevertheless is a form of ownership–which sets in motion an increasing demand for control, a resistance to that control, and a whirl of ensuing outcomes–which include Pierre’s betrayal of both Franca and Nicole.

How does this happen? It happens because a passionless desire, or a certain mental configuration of flesh, can become a way of seeing and experiencing another as less than a subject. When Pierre questions Nicole’s wearing jeans, you know he’s on the downside of a fast track. When he is embarrassed by her too loud comments in a restaurant, you know he’s hit the bottom. Even his age, prestige and subject status–central to his Cupid power– have abandoned him. The truth is he has eroticized one woman out of existence, and abandoned his loyal, warm wife in the bargain.

Pierre Lachanay, as a kind of bourgeois version of Everyman, is totally believable and not the type of man who rouses ire in anyone. He’s precise, articulate, shy, unlucky, and not outstanding in any way. That he ends up loveless, utterly alone, and shot would seem to crown him most sympathetic character, but in line with Truffaut’s disciplined control of the action, it does not. For Franca owns the final scene and her husband’s infidelity is written deep in her passional and physical being. 


A Life on the Male Side (book review of Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side)

Nelson Algren, by the end of Bettina Drew‘s objective biography is a guy I (chiefly) don’t want to know. Yeah, there are his impressive traits and shining moments, as his defiance of middle class hypocrisies, his early and intermittent association with the poor and working class, his political earnestness, his moving discontent with the country, and not the least, his expertise in alienation and guilt. But his misogyny all but stuffs out these appeals offering in their stead a writer‘s swagger and self-absorbed romanticism, a hipster underworld alliance, a narrowing and isolating political identity, and ultimately, a dependent conventionality. 


His sexism begins early as an unquestioning customer of prostituted women. This sets a pattern of use (prostitution serves all of his long life) which includes mistresses, wives, lovers, press agents, editors, and a famed feminist author, all vying to give him, the creator, solace and often chameleon-like attention. How many times do we read one page that he meets an attractive woman (even if decades younger) and on the next that he is in bed with her? Count them. Yes, there is only a short step from women as commodity to women as convenience. Or from their facelessness to his face as a male.

His life in and around the underworld is also an extension of his male identity. He gravitates to a gangster era fraternity which includes pimps, card sharks, junkies, old jockeys and boxers, and the usual gamut of underworld profiteers backed by their compatriots in the press. Machismo, danger, risk-taking, violence, exploitative sex, grotesquerie offer Algren’s an out of control life style to match his controlled writer‘s persona. I’m speaking here of a male zone which not only excludes women but also the poor–because the underworld is not the underclass. In fact, to him it is a show off tour to which he lures his latest love interest, no doubt to assure her of his exciting outlawry and masculinity.

Algren’s political density, which is so reminiscent of the leftist men that sixties feminists attacked, is perhaps most telling in his expose of one abusive derelict Hong Kong brothel written while simultaneously purchasing prostitutes from a neighboring brothel. If the use of women was among the most pivotal causes of the guilt that drove Algren’s early fiction, it must be assumed that such “sins” and regrets have by this point become no more than interesting transgressions empty of such motivating capacity. The old would-be rescuer of damsel prostitutes in distress has settled for a mere observation of inhumane whore house conditions. Yeah, it’s too bad that Algren never came around to grasping the difference say between Toulouse-Lautrec and the Marquis de Sade, for he draws upon the very liberalism he despises in order to barter for a more lawful whore house rather than for the abolition of the most powerful male sexual institution. And thus falls into the mechanized arms of the male club. Which won a spot for this piece in Playboy, as I recall.

Alpha Dogs  (Movie Review)

“Dog Days” may employ hot humid summer days to express a grim and atomized social reality, but it more effectively, intentionally or not, turns to the microwave heat of male sexuality to express an even grimmer reality of violations and violence. In “Dog Days,” de Sade is not dead.  


The question is: what is its director’s stance? Is “Dog Days” a rebuke of men’s abuse and use of women? Is it an expression of content which may raise a few questions? Or, does it accept, given the hot weather and the heat generated by male sexuality, the normalcy of such raw force?

My take is that Seidel settles for ambiguity. For one, the resistance position is not an option for him, because he can and does use his camera as an accomplice in male sexual abuse. This is most evident in the prolonged sadistic scene involving the teacher and her pornhead boyfriend. Here Seidel chooses pornography over implication, thus aligning himself with the victimizer over the victim. In a sense Seidel is like his character, the salesman, Hrubl, who is disturbed by his role in the rape of the hitch-hiker, but perhaps because his escape hatch is a room filled with porn, cannot muster the will not stop it. But, ironically, this is a scene in which Seidel himself chooses only to indicate rape, proving that he understands how his camera can compound crime.

Seidel also extends too much sympathy to his men, all of whom are guilty of various levels of misogyny. While his female characters are mainly pacified, silent, and one dimensional, the men who sell them out are given more latitude, action, and centrality, which in turn makes them more worthy of consideration. In other words, the victims are bound by duty and love, and locked up in involuntary lives; whereas the men who ooze contempt for them get to display freedom and “human” markings.

This makes for a convenient circularity because it refuses to point to the agent of an exploitative, power-linked sexuality. Seidel cannot judge them, monsters as some of them are, because he himself is drenched in masculine assumptions. One might say that his unflinching view reveals men, but his hard look softens before their acts.

When Lucky, the pornhead’s buddy, returns to apologize to the teacher he says “I’m sorry that you had to take shit yesterday because of the sins of all women,” adding that his participation in her eroticized degradation was both a pleasure and a valuable experience–and no doubt a pumping up of his male identity. Whether Seidel hears all this as a galling reversal or a wrong-headed apology isn’t that clear, but lines such as these make it obvious that Seidel is immersed in the arena of sexual politics.

There are other indications of Seidel’s stand throughout the film. As the opening credits roll, the camera espies several sun bathers–all have unnoticeable or shapeless bodies except for two model-like topless young women. He extends this same type of bodily exception to the bar dancer, whose waif-like, sexually-charged figure serves as a kind of exclamation point in a slowly evolving film. Then there is the swing scene that subtly sexualizes the plain hitch-hiker as a kind of foreshadowing of her rape.

In sum, when it comes to sex objectification Seidel seems to follow the lead of his male-ordered culture.. He cannot critique women as male property because of an equivocation which seems to start with his invasive camera (remember the pornhead walks right into the teacher’s apt) and ends up affecting his judgment. Give him credit for revealing male sexual aggression, fail him for refusing to connect criminal acts to their male agents. A blurb on the dvd describes “Dog Days” as “strangely entertaining.” Which begs the question: FOR WHOM? 


The Eves of Alienated Men  (movie review)

The “Diary of a Suicide” is visually riveting, lyrical, its faces compelling. Its worldview is transcendent, non-historical, myth-based world–one of alienation, war, torture, anomie, and disorientation. However despite the dead-end despair, the suffering of all the characters, the males ones– the tour guide, the actor, the jailer–maintain their freedom to control and dominate. These men never cease serving their own interests. In fact, they uphold their subject status through the presence of the women they objectify.  


The three “brave” male souls living without meaning or values are in many ways meshed together as one. They get to tell the story within the other’s story within the other’s story. They are the speakers, the viewers, the actors, the possessors. Each is grafted to the same universal world view which permits them to survive off an “other,” who isn’t responsible for the mess of their world. Their stories may be biased and partial, but they stick, and perpetuate more such stories, because whatever power is left in this futile, and nihilistic world, belongs to men.

The ship’s tour guide‘s estrangement, for example, doesn’t translate into a passivity around women. He observes, intrudes upon, manipulates, eroticizes, seduces, and mystifies the ship’s blond interpreter. He studies her to get to her. He is the knower, she the known, the interest that keeps his manly status intact in the face of his ennui. That she turns out to be disfigured–not a sign of depth as in the one-eyed Einstein–behind her wide sun glasses, offers him one more chance to further his power over her in the form of rejection.

The actor fights off the godless world via a powerful ego which is fed by his wife’s Edith Piaf-like performances. His very isolation seems to intensify his self-importance as he relates his stories of death, decay, and destruction. And he seems to have an inscrutable connection to the jailer whose suicide appears to directly touch off the death of his own wife.

The jailer is more oppressed than the other men. He’s a victim of a cruel and pointless war which leaves him with permanent brain damage., and an absolute sleep incapacity. He does have a singular memory–that of the face of a loving prostitute. Yet despite this very specific and passionate vision and despite his anguish and own personal oppression, he has no identification or sympathy with his prisoner. She is someone he observes, someone under his control, as he stands there above her composing his own diary.

His suicide itself is as much an act of sadism and murder as it is self-destruction. Since, he makes it a crapshoot as to whom he kills, his terrorized prisoner or himself, it is no wonder, that he kills both himself–and the actor’s wife. But the actress’ demise does not just replace the lucky anarchist prisoner because now bereft of her 24 hour guard, she will soon be dead herself, and thus be the second death caused by the jailer’s suicide.

The guide, the jailer, the actor–and the male anarchist, are indeed inseparable. They are joined by their manipulative power over women. They keenly hear each other, but not women–exploiting their listening capacity as they do their bodies. They are both emotionally detached and socially detached–on a ship, a stage, in a prison. But not detached from each other–they may be worlds apart, and yet share the unity of disembodied subjects under the auspices of traditional male power.

For sure, women are the listeners to and facilitators of men’s language. They are framed out of their stories, existing rather as the scenery, the scenes, and the seen. Their bodies exist merely for sex, voyeurism, and display. Their faces for adoration, allure, and sheer beauty (the anarchist must spend most of her prison day on her makeup). The interpreter, gets to be frigid, the anarchist to be twisted, and the actress to be eviscerated and hysterical. In sum, they get to be projected as death, decay, and disintegration in a world made by and for men.


DielMAN is EverywoMAN  (film review)

Akerman’s portrait of “Jeanne Dielman: …..” is so utterly specific and banal as to bypass the individual for the universal. Jeanne Dielman is everywoman because her life’s structure is devised by men.

She chooses a survival form which may appear at times both convincing and seductive but she is no Trappist monk. Her choosing is proscribed by sexual exploitation, sacrificial motherhood, social estrangement, and domestic imprisonment.

That Jeanne is bottom line female (as outsider) is the objective statement that Akerman delivers–and she effectively accomplishes this by rejecting all statement forms, and all filmic manipulations. No psychology, no close-ups, no drama, no music, no controlling camera angles or movements, no romanticism, no sexual display, no attractions, no arguments.

Her film is an expression of political wisdom, an expose of power, and systematic sexism. Its shape and all its cold hard details correlate with this point. This is the great challenge of the film–to perceive how every minute of each of Jeanne’s day, from the holy rituals around her son’s care, to the precisely measured repetitions of housekeeping and shopping, to the distancing routines and cautions around her mannered clients, are built in to express her morbid isolation, her growing loss of reality, and her final unraveling.

Fact: this film is a fact–content and style a fact–it is women’s life as a matter of fact. Men’s freedom dictates it. Thus, the ending, which might be a step to dignity–or might not. Perhaps it’s a metaphor for rebellion, which also belongs to every woman.

White-wash  (Review of Russell Banks” Lost Memory of Skin)

Entertaining verbiage. Ambiguous. But it’s goal is to exonerate, not clarify. So the more effective as male propaganda. Why not instead of a southern working class white sex offender, a drug offender in the same mode who gets 10 years for smoking a joint–which is as common, far more unjust, way more devastating, is victimless, and not criminal . Why lament/justify a victim crime that is only now–in wee numbers–being prosecuted after thousands of years of carte blanche criminality. (Ask the 26,00 sex offense victims in the US military over this past year?) 


“Memory” has an all male cast–a homeless hero, a professor, and a writer. But for a ball busting Black probation officer called “the cop,” the voiceless women characters are absorbed in male lives. No sex victims, no hint of sex victims (except in two throw-away lines), no history of sexual crimes, and no indication of the power differential between men and women. Exemplary is Willow, the Canadian porn actor: she is not only not viewed as a victim, she downright adores the Kid for being his property, for having American soldier status, and for distributing her dvds to all his barracks buddies. She just bubbles over with liberal “consent.“ Mom? Well she gets to play Eve here. She is a single parent, the loose woman, whose sexual encounters, when overheard by her son, drive him to internet porn to the tune of masturbation 8 times a day for 12 years. Gloria, a proper librarian, also gets sexualized: she is not “hot enough” for the just out of jail Kid but serves as a strip-tease artist for her fat professor husband, and then two days after his suicide, is already coupled to the (Hemmingway) Writer. While Dolores, the outdoorswoman (nature), and chief certifier of the Kid’s innocence, is a bit too warm even for the Kid who finds her emasculating. Thus, these women get to reveal nothing of their own subordination let alone to shine a light on the detritus of sex offenders.

Sex victims are thus disappeared so as not to detract sympathy from the hero. Even the novel’s title reverses the very reality of the sexual offense. The Kid is viewed as having lost his bodily connection, when it’s stupendously clear that it is sex offenders themselves who impose this sentence on their victims–who truly constitute the Other, a role the Kid would convince us he owns. Where are the violated and exploited porn actors the kid got off on? How did Willow’s life turn out? Where are the criminals themselves? You know the kind who actually do criminal acts. I’m sorry but a few shots at OJ Simpson doesn’t do. What gets questioned here are the grudgingly secured laws, laws still without teeth, and easily skirted (only 37% of those found guilty go to jail), or softened by indulgent judges out of touch with the victim’s life and reality.

The whole structure of violence against women: rape, battery, incest, the sex industries of prostitution and sex slavery, sexual harassment, and s-m sex do not register a blip here. Pornography is present but is beyond criticism except for its effect on the viewer. Bank’s formulation evades political context, male social power being non-existent in his set-up, as are the root causes of sexual crime. There is no interrogation at all on behalf of the victims. Women’s Liberation never happened. This failure at politics is also a failure at sympathy. This is a white-wash.

Although a novel like this offers a perfect opportunity to question male sexuality itself, there is nary a whisper of it here. The Kid’s level of engagement in porn–he purchases it, he derives pleasure in violence (including depicted crimes)–is never questioned either by him or the narrator. Nor is his willingness to circulate porn: he was booted out of the army, not for exploiting women, but because Afghan mores demanded this rule. Nor is the Kid answerable for his willingness to spend the night with a 14 year old girl: hey, it was a sting operation, no? For sure, it is the accused in this novel who get to do all the explaining–which shuts off questioning. Over and over again the Kid complains about his “object status.” Was he an object during his 8x365x12 porn sessions? Was he an object when he set up his sex tryst? Is the Kid ever an object except in his own mind? (What he might be is a partial “victim” of the normalization of porn, but this, by implication is sanctioned). In fact, what the novel hides is exactly what it maintains: female object status in male sexuality.

But maybe the most convincing white-wash lies in the portrait of the Kid himself–his innocence inflated by clichés, alibis, victim-blaming, and the usual bleatings about male misery. I mean what would we think of him if he had no loving pets, had a sweet liberal parole officer, lived in his own apt. (like the typical sex offender), had a normal build, a normal social life, and a socially acceptable mom? I think we might be looking more at his sex offenses than at his scapegoat status. A status that he himself is active in pursuing by insisting on his isolation, his virginity, his “sex addiction“ (which he stops on a dime); the raw deals of the army discharge, the sting operation, the surveillance sentence (actually a concession to prison), and his family dysfunction.

But less we have any doubt about his masculinity, his male credentials must also be established (for male readers). So the Kid has the biggest dick in his Army outfit. And despite his outsider, “loner” identity is a big man with the troops–thanks to his video sharing. And as a “prisoner” under the Causeway continues to bond with men. He’s there as a man among men– damaged by a female legal system. Accused men who speak no language because beer drinking, tattoos, shared instincts, and exclusionary camaraderie suffice. For a guy “born in a black hole” (not of woman born) life under the Causeway, which he is closest to in the final moments, must seem almost the perfect home.  

Three Men and a Woman  (movie review)

In “Tarnished Angels” three men are in love with one woman; each distinctly fails in this love, and yet perhaps more interestingly, each , with possible exception of Roger Schumann, the one certain tarnished angel, comes through too.  


Laverne Schumann (Dorothy Malone) is a woman trapped in her body in a man’s world. At 16, she meets Capt. Roger Schumann (Robert Stack), the crack flyer and war hero (whose image she had seen in a 1918 Liberty Bond Poster), and foregoes her own conventional aspirations in favor of hooking on with his ambition and fame. “Smitten” with her as the Captain may be, and despite his hero’s rejection of “flags, confetti” and honor, he remains a warrior when it comes to expressing affection–and his use of Laverne is as natural as flying. Laverne says of the early days “Roger made Jiggs (his mechanic) feel like two cents–me even less.” Then when pregnant in 1923, she is subject to the degradation of a dice roll to determine whether Roger or his mechanic should serve as a husband/father. Later, when Roger needs the unattainable Ord plane to compete in a race, she says, in offering herself as procurement, “and who’s going to fix Matt Ord?” For Laverne knows her place and knows her worth–she gets 20 bucks for parachuting in a white dress at her hubby’s Air Shows. But, underneath, the experience is crushing. She admits to Burke (the reporter), who rescues her from the Ord mission” “No, I mind–each and every nightmare, each and every sin.” The plane secured, she says to Burke: “I wish you had not talked me out of it. I would have felt free to walk out on Roger.”

It can be argued that Jiggs (Jack Carson), Roger’s crack mechanic, is the closest man to Laverne, closest because his friendship is as convincing as his love. In fact, she reserves her most open and face to face expressions for him. He’s quick to stand with her, and remarkably truthful in admitting his failures to do so. When Roger sends his wife to Ord, Jiggs says to him: “I thought you hit rock bottom with that dice game.“ “What’s happened to us?” He turns to Laverne: “What to hell have we done to you?” He includes himself because as he later says to Laverne in her tragic circumstance: “I wish I could tell you I’ve never done nothin to hurt you but I can’t. Me and my lousy pride. I never tried to kill the dirty talk, the dirty lies, not once.” And outside the Cafe Mullen, when a grease monkeys baits him: “now you’re going to have the luscious Laverne all to yourself,” he belts him. But is left totally alone in the night, longing for the man he wanted to kill only a few hours before: “where are you Roger?” (which may explain his timidity in defending Laverne.)

Roger Schumann is undoubtedly attached to Laverne. He knew the outcome of the dice roll was as certain as his dependence on Laverne. Unfortunately for his lover, however, attachment is not love, and marriage does not mean the end to his using her for his own ends. This said, he is aware of Laverne’s inner and outer strength, and her ability to take on the hardships and risks of the bitterly strange life he had subjected her too. In the Ord affair, he’s confident that “she can take care of herself” with his arch enemy. But his avowal of love comes only when faced with a palpable chance of death, and only when his “hunger for flying” is ending–this is when he can ask Laverne’s forgiveness for having used her, and finally utter the words “I love you.” Although real and meant, his words may be gauged as questionable, given his pipe dream about an escape to a brand new life after his one final go at the pylons. The “spilling of his crank case oil” (his blood according tot Burke) and his generous flying heroics may have come too late. For his compressed pilot identity, “the man conquered by the flying machine,” may have been more of a repudiation of Laverne than he could have imagined.

Burke Devlin’s (Rock Hudson) love for Laverne is thoughtful and realizable. Burke is a literate crack reporter, with wit, heart, and generosity. He meets the Schumanns through rescuing their son from taunts: “who’s you’re old man?” And then offers them his place as a crash pad, where he shows up very late to find Laverne immersed in his copy of Willa Cather’s “My Antonia.” In the press offices the next day he says he spent the night “discussing literature and life with a beautiful half-naked blond.” But Burke is perceptive about Roger’s use of Laverne: he learns about the dice roll, and witnesses her erotic fall from the sky, and later when he asks her whether Roger suspected an affair between them, she says “Roger’s thoughts never come down to earth” to which Burke adds “but they do go into the gutter.”

But Burke’s love for Laverne is contingent on the slow unfolding of their relationship– he does respect both her and her marriage. But, of course, not enough. For he fails to grasp the bond (of risk, danger, attachment) between Laverne and Roger, and it takes the timely intercession of a Fool to make him realize that his own sense of prowess has trumped his vigilance. But Laverne’s angry rejection of him after the accident for having taken advantage of her vulnerable situation seems a bit excessive (perhaps a plot demand). In any case, Laverne soon becomes Burke’s Antonia—he asks himself after one of her walkouts “Will I ever see you again, my Antonia?”– that courageous, independent, vital and now even northwest landscape bound woman, friend–and maybe someday lover. For Burke’s airport farewell, in which he lends her his “My Antonia,” are: “I want it returned personally.”  


“Everybody look – what’s going down?” (review of Brauder’s Family Circle: The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left”)

Kathy Boudin was not my pal, but I was often in her presence, and I knew her circle, one of whom tried to recruit me into the Weather Underground. Let me attest that what we all had in common was an imperfect (sexism, class-ism) political consciousness which was driven internally by an understanding of our own individual oppression and externally by the genocidal war in Southeast Asia, an inherently racist system, and by all forms of authoritarianism, most often enforced through oppressive institutions.

My point is that we read the world through a political lens, and took principled stances on that basis. We tended to shun the psychological view as too narrow, too reductive, and too distractive. It’s not that our families had no shaping influence in our lives, but that they carried far less determining power than did the enormous political realities that ratcheted our actions, sparked our thoughts, and in many ways, wrenched us from the whole mainstream world.

What’s most lacking, I think, in “Family Circle: The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left,” is the above political perspective, namely in regards its pivotal subject, Kathy Boudin. A psychological template, which is both limiting and individualizing is bound to fall short of her lived reality. She and her Sixties allies need to be placed in the historical and social framework which is accountable to their world view. Why, in these pages, is the harrowing Vietnam War made so invisible? Why does an all-pervasive racism seem primarily to reside in white guilt?

But there’s another powerful social force in Kathy’s life which is chiefly absent from Brauder’s account, one that is very central to the shaping of her life. The Women’s Liberation Movement was at its peak in the very years of Kathy’s crises. And so was its opposition. Yes, Brauder notes many incidents of sexism on the left, but she refuses to adopt an anti-sexist perspective. Which has the effect of isolating Kathy as if on a stage–and stereotyping her to boot. Thus she emulates her sexist father, copes or circumvents the sexism of the vanguard left, and easily capitulates to the macho behind the Brinks robbery–which costs her 22 years in prison, and is nary a footnote. And what about Das Oughtan’s death on W.11th St? And Jane Alpert’s long prison sentence? Or Judith Clarke’s? These lives cry out for a feminist perspective. As does that of Eva Blitzstein’s suicide (a virtual footnote) and Jean Boudin’s endlessly repeated shock treatments following an attempted suicide.

So, for Brauder to succeed in her Kathy Boudin portrait, she would need to widen her lens to draw in these two potent perspectives. This would eliminate the free-floating, longwinded, fact-filled, (at times) dubiously written (the baffling overuse of the word “pretty” and “robbers” and the no transition sentences), journalistic commentary in favor of a more cogent analysis which would not only bolster her subjects but also the larger world that they are inseparable from. Yes, a critical perspective would unify, strengthen–and expand, this presentation of a representative Sixties life. 

Freudian Eclipse  (movie review: “The Magdalene Sisters”)

It was male sexual license which brought the Magdalene asylums into existence. They were non-denominational safe houses for prostitutes and homeless women. Later, in the mid-nineteenth century the Church, in a alliance with the State, took them over. The goals were to continue providing services to “lost women,” cover the costs through the work regime, and provide a social service to the State. In this arrangement, nuns, the lowest members of the Church hierarchy, served as the front line workers, and were no more party to the shaping of the institution, and its expanded client list, than were the rescued women they served. 


So, there were three forces behind the Catholic Magdalene houses: the prostitute users and rapists who created the inmates, the State which hid both sexual license and its victims, and the Church which gained communal and moral sway.

“The Magdalene Sisters” snuffs this broader context, choosing to see the oppression and suffering through the reductive lens of personal sexual repression. The nuns are not viewed in any sense as co-victims or sisters to their charges but as authoritarian, sadistic old maids. Though they work from dawn until dusk with house, factory, and prayer work, their lives are viewed as hypertrophied. Even in their only human moment during the communal viewing of “The Bells of St. Mary,” they quickly revert to their stepmother harshness. That sexual repression owns their actions, determines their person is specifically underscored in the villainous stripping game they force on the inmates, as if they were male screws in a women’s prison.

If one had to choose the dominant symbols of sexual repression in western culture today, nuns, priests, women, and Catholic Ireland would no doubt first come to mind. “The Magdalene Sisters” pushes all these buttons–and sparks the film with some sexual scenes and sexual fun and games to boot.

The sex abusive priest exists in the same mold as the young rapist at the Catholic-ridden music event. Their acts are not so much the problem as is their sexual repression born of a puritanical Irish Catholicism. What the priest suffers for his act is a prank which divests him of layers of hypocritical clothing. The laughable strip tease is no doubt more popular and desirable to a modern audience than some “politically correct” form of public justice. But the exculpation of criminal acts is still in place, as it is in the case of that same violent rapist lad–to whom nothing at all happens.

Anyway, when the girls enter the gate, we’re supposed to believe that their persecution begins right then. The world they have left behind (run by and for men) goes scot free, but the world they enter, a women’s world, is a prison. The Sisters of Mercy are the torturers. And Mother Superior is the unbending warden, while nuns young and old, having suppressed all kindness, understanding and intelligence, are the merciless screws. Their incarceration techniques are are so effective that the State has washed its hands of its supervisory role.

The social context is replaced by the private narrative. The political is psychologized. Women are pitted against women. Freud’s myth of sexual repression, so powerfully adhered to in Hollywoodland, displace sexual license, and the State’s/Church’s central role in protecting it.

In sum, Christ, a man, can understand Mary Magdalene; the Sisters of Mercy, working in the Magdalene homes, and all women, cannot. Because they are the scapegoat.  


Portrait of Batterer  (movie review)

This may or may not be Chabrol‘s best, but it must be his bravest. For what else can “The Pleasure Party” (1976) be but an open protest of patriarchy and battery. Think Ibsen’s “A Doll House,” and you cannot be far off.

I think it’s the final scenes that erase any minute doubt about the film’s intent. First there is the belated rescue attempt of four men and a woman: the adult men’s physical prowess seems suspended as if, as men, their hands are tied, while the woman casts a blinding black veil over Philip’s head, halting the action, and condemning the actor. And then the prison scene in which Elsie (his new llama or lamb) tells her father that she is unable to learn under the harassment of a male student, to which his non-response includes the same transcendent jargon he used in the cemetery prior to his vicious assault. Chabrol and the Leguaffs have indeed taken their stand with this shattering portrait of male terror–one that explodes out of a convincingly two-faced man, and is thus all the more effective.

Yes this is a movie about male power. It is not about sexual impotence, philosophies, or a mid-life crisis , but about Philip’s hard-wired connection to masculine identity. If he feels inadequate and helpless in the face of what he can only understand as female weakness, it is because he has bought into women’s difference–from men. In other words, Esther is so other to him that anything other than ownership is threatening. The turning point of the film is when he advises Esther –“you should do it.”–to sleep with other men. This moment must be as pointedly misogynist as his later acts of violence; for here he equates his lover with sex, temptation, and whoredom –ostensibly to test his purity and his ideas of freedom, but, in effect, he is using her to provoke her own demise. It’s very instructive that although he manages the first test–even offering his satiated wife breakfast in bed the next morning, it is sex in bed–with him (to reclaim ownership) must come first. And during a party scene, he argues for the comparison of Gandhi and Hitler–unaware that Gandhi similarly used women to test his own purity, and that the latter’s sadistic, eruptive violence would soon adhere to him.

What Philip becomes is a full fledged Magus: “the man who tells you everything and what to do” as he explains to Elsie, in his characterizing Habib. Toward Esther, he grows increasingly resentful, suspicious, tense, judgmental, menacing–and possessive. He shows the brawn to break down doors, and a mentality which can accept and enact cruelty. He becomes more withdrawn and, as Esther points out, racist. In the bathroom mirror scene his face, viewed through her tears, is as perverse as the Landru he introduced to his daughter in his House of Wax. The “freedom” he has granted his wife has boomeranged on him. He hates it and everyone and everything connected to it. “Liberty makes me sh_t,” he says. When Sylvia simply asks “Why do you yell at Esther?” he answers that she talks too much of freedom and hangs out with guitar players. And his “profound” need for his ex-wife doesn’t occur till Sylvia displays her independence in the fishing scene–here he longs for Esther’s dependency symbolized for him in her fear of crabs.

Esther grasps the picture, but does not have the social power to act sufficiently on it, so finds herself ultimately trapped. However, her defiance is quiet, lucid, and courageous. Her “you, you, it’s all about you” refrain, and lines like: “You make the decisions, I only say amen” and “I was great as your reflection” are equal to Ibsen’s Nora. But she is more psychologically isolated than Nora, and must suffer from far more abuse, verbal, and, of course, physical. Esther is a battered woman and must endure that syndrome–she cannot fully grasp what Philip says to his buddies: “her weak point move me,” and how many times is she willing to forego the depth of her own words: “since when do you care what I say.” She can never finally disbelieve her husband–even the forced foot-licking is not proof– and so, in the end turns to him in a moment of personal crisis because “she is too scared” to visit alone the tomb of the dear deceased aunt, the woman who raised her. The irony here is as devastating as her words are convincing. And her final “NO, NO” has come too late and is heard too late.

I understand that the Phillip role was turned down by several leading French actors. If one can relive some of his lines just previous to the assault, one can understand why? But his words serve to finally and totally expose the man behind the mask. His self-assurance, disarming directness, and engaging and almost defenseless smile belong now to a slave-holder, rather than a man who in his words, was “born to be joyful.“ When he say to Esther that all his sufferings (since their breakup–ha, ha, ha) “must be compensation for what I’ve been through,” the viewer can only say bring on the executioner. It’s so extremely tragic that he is the executioner.  


Nemesis (movie review)

“The Booth” is a riveting character thriller informed by a convincing realism and familiarity It’s totally focused on a broadcast booth, a radio talk show star, and female retribution. 


The Nippon Broadcasting Co.’s studio 6 sets the scene. A veteran late night talk show host receives a call from a woman suicide partner whom in thirty years he has never grieved for. The phone and the lines start to sear with disruptions, he gets guilt/ghost stricken by her voice, feels trapped in his booth, and hangs himself.

Many years later a popular radio host for Tokyo LoveLine is forced by circumstance to do his show from that same closed down studio. Shoto is all the rave with the late night lonelies, especially with the women listeners. He’s totally in control, holds his audience in his hands, and can effectively run the emotional gamut a show like this requires. He’s a potent mix of expressive personality, manipulativeness, insensitivity, gratuitous sympathy, and showmanship. Despite his womanizing (on the air, but mostly in flash backs) women adore and trust him.

We are in Shoto’s shoes, as his image fills the screen for the duration. We ride his highs and squirm with his lows. But the highs are at best very intermittent because Shoto is suddenly faced with a similar predicament to his suicide predecessor in Studio 6. Except this is the extended circuit, the prime feature in full color.

The booth quickly becomes claustrophobic as line interruptions and voices start to disrupt his advice conversations with jilted lovers. The voice “you are a liar” begins to distract him to such an extent that he cannot focus on the actual conversation, and his fright state makes hearing impossible. His trusted assistant can only do so much to help him answer his angry callers who accuse him of being a bad listener and out of control.

The great communicator is caught naked–he cannot communicate and fakes his way through to music breaks. He grows more and more distraught as the booth seems to be conspiring against him, He feels more and more cramped, and desperate losing all scope, and all fellowship with his technical staff. Is he up against the ghost of a woman he has abused and perhaps left for dead, her actual self, an office staff conspiracy to bring him down, or plain guilt?

What we do know is that crimes against women possess these two love experts to the point that these harmed women inhabit them and demand their own justice. By what medium this is done is not important. What does matter is that these betrayers of women can no longer live with their hypocrisy, their crime, their guilt. And that their huge public gets the message.

The key strength of “The Booth” is that in never abandons reality for fantasy. The dead indeed may have awakened, but in a way that no viewer can doubt. Thirty years of stoical waiting in a grave, or several hours afloat in the vast sea, that impact can arise out of nothingness is never in question. If the two women have been given the power of lovers, so can they possess the power of judge. The booth itself is proof of that. 


Outrage Absent Agency  (movie review)

“Outrage” (1950) certainly does express the personal anger associated with rape, but does it address the increased personal agency that often accompanies it?

Ann Walton (Mala Powers) is first subjected to stranger rape, and is then, in the person of her fiance, pressured to succumb to an elopement which, in her distraught but pissed off state, she refuses. She then sets off on her own, but is soon met with more shades of her originals assault, as in leering, appraising men, and in one forced sexual encounter. Fortunately for her, she meets a man who is entirely outside of that degrading continuum.

The Rev. Bruce Ferguson (Tod Andrews) is a guardian to an agricultural community that is reminiscent of the more idealistic co-operative in “The Grapes of Wrath.” Though you might say he rescues a lost, emotionally battered Ann, he does more than just take her under his wing. Their subsequent interactions create a kind of equality, mutual trust, and affection rarely scene on screen. Even their youthful, expressive faces seem to match, as they reverberate with warmth, sincerity, and honor. But their evolving relationship is stopped short of love and desire.

The interceding act is a brutish attempt on Ann at a ranch picnic. This creep sends an explicit message that the town is too narrow for Bruce, and too dangerous for Ann. But it also causes an investigation into Ann’s past which in turn infringes directly on their present lives.

Bruce then, by force of circumstance, becomes the mediator of Ann’s return not only to her family but to an unwanted marriage. So, Ann’s new found sense of identity and bodily integrity is once again on the rocks. Bruce’s felt responsibility to her family and to her ex-fiance’s marriage plans take precedence over both a committed friendship and, most importantly, her own advancing sense of personal agency.

By having to return to her unloved fiance, she must revert to a state of subjection, and this cannot be sugar-coated. She is now being instructed to want what she has already rejected. In a real way, Ann is being returned to the estranged state or void left in her by the violent rape. Her outrage which so enables her to reclaim her self must now be tamed for the sake a lifelong conventional arrangement which she had and has no part in.

This is the movie’s weakness. A stronger ending would have Ann and Bruce set out for a new life, not necessarily as lovers, or partners, but as strong allies in a contemptible world that wants to deprive and dispossess both of them of a broader, and more compelling life and friendship.

Shine a Light  (book review)

Sally Cline‘s Women, Celibacy and Passion is not primarily, or should I say, ’openly’ about celibacy as a political resistance to a male-defined sexuality. It is rather reflections on a wide range of women celibates based on interviews, the lives of known and historic persons, and literature. It’s light in spirit, fairly intimate, clear, non-academic–and pleasurable. At the same time it’s a serious and important book for all (really) including for those who have not contemplated or lived through periods of celibacy because while liberating to the practiced, it is hardly burdensome, or weary to the unpracticed.


I’m sure that all celibates suffer from a lack of community and thus from a lack of those echoes that help one sanely maintain a nearly forbidden (when chosen), dangerous, and never valued stance. This volume, and I might add Janice Raymond’s A Passion For Friends, directly address such isolation by proving that such a community is more widespread than the dominant male social paradigm acknowledges. What Cline does is make celibates visible to one another, while supporting their resolves, and reminding them of their own truth.

So, who are her celibates? Many are married women, many divorced, many widowed, and many vowed to celibacy because of degrading or violent sexual experiences, career or job commitments, chronic illness, or disability. Some may be celibate in the sense that they hold high demands for a partner who, in many cases, it is understood, may never materialize. The key perception is that all celibates, whether fully committed or only temporarily accepting, are very much part of the same continuum.

What celibates can and need to live without is genitally focused sexuality. They may or may not be sexual but, if so, they don’t “have sex” as is culturally defined. They reject the Norm, and the pervasive, compulsory male culture that promotes it. In the US about 10% of the words in the language seem to have a second sexual meaning, and hundreds more denote the act of genital sex. The critique of genital fixation is indeed an understatement.

So who needs a sexuality that is defined by one sex only? A sex that is predominately possessive, power-based, competitive, and predatory. Or one that is also far too often violent, prostituting, and degrading.

There are two obvious ways out of the trap: lesbianism and celibacy. When these means are intentional responses, they are named political lesbianism and Cline’s “passionate celibacy.” Those who embrace them are oft in the closet and oft isolated because sexual self-determination and self-direction are an affront and a threat to the powers that be–who incidentally run the world too. Thus the courage of this book which is not in the least averse to freedom, independence, solitude, and endurance. Have a read! 

Proposed Script Revision (movie review)

Christian Petzsold’s “The State I Am In” stands on its own as a superior character study, but for me the cast was superior to the script. Julia Hummer, Barbara Auer, and Richie Muller are the perfect actors for a politically radical “family” permanently on the lam. However, the Clara and Hans roles might benefit from a little more background and Jeanne, especially Jeanne, Clara’s daughter and the film’s protagonist, seems too conventional for someone in her position. Revising Jeanne by just one character substitute would makes the film more convincing, original, adult, and subversive.

It’s hard for me to believe that a 15 year old teen who has lived her entire life in the underground with two revolutionary adults should be cast in so discordant a frame. Why is a typical romance at the center of her break out world? Why at 15 is she jealous of her mother’s love-making; why is this the passion she must realize rather than say a passion for justice? Why does she have more diffidence in the young man’s presence than in that of her “parents?” Given that the German Internal Security Forces are moving in on these dear three, how is this the moment for her confrontation with Clara and Hans? And why does she seem a bit too middle class, spoiled, and ultimately too destructive to be the daughter of a radical couple?

In contrast, the Clara and Hans roles are more convincing. They seem to be what their lives have dictated. They are disciplined, adult, competent, intelligent, and rarely and only momentarily under the sway of their emotions. They work together and hard to build a life despite their isolation; they accept that theirs is not the loving relationship that might belong to them in a different world; and most critically, it is their sense of leadership and equality that holds them together. As does their mutual love for Clara’s daughter, from whom they expect a lot in the way of learning, mature discernment, and discipline.

But Jeanne more often than not, does not seem to be a reflection of Clara and Hans, nor of their hard earned independence and values. She only partly flourishes under her “parents” mutual respect and love for her. She time and time again risks her “family’s” safety for the sake of a little romance/sex. Why doesn’t she feel more deprived by her lack of social world, recognition, or opportunities for practicing the social justice Clara and Hans gave up their freedom for?

Of course, the Jeanne of the film is possible, but it seems to me this film would have been much more challenging if she were cast as a social actor of some kind. This is a political, not a psychological threesome. Her blossoming independence needs to find realization in something to at least match the seriousness of her life and parents, say a smart, trustworthy or politically conscious friend, or some other connection that drives her outside her troubled mind. If her parents opposed corporate domination she perhaps could be shown opposing male domination

REVISION: Substitute for the dime store romance a close friendship with a truly independent young woman her age. (perhaps the interesting teenager who directly approaches her to attend the school film) The break out would center around this budding friendship. Say this young woman has a friend who is being sexually harassed by her teacher or coach, and she decides to organize a protest on her behalf. Jeanne decides to attend it, is arrested, spends a little time with her friend in the clinker and while out on bail, Internal Security closes in on her, Clara and Hans. In an ensuing chase, they make it across the border, Jeanne from the backseat puts one arm around Hans, one around Clara, their heads squeezed together in a bobbing embrace as their white Opel put-puts down the road. Curtains.

An end with no betrayal, no requisite deaths of the revolutionaries. All the irresolutional conflicts which beset the three would at least for the time find respite. Jeanne would answer her search for all that already existed within her in both her friend’s world and in Clara and Hans. And a sense of promise would enter the lives of those who have been sentenced to have none.

Incest Damage (movie review)

“The Fifth Mind” is a realistic fictional account of the destructive effects of incest on a son, daughter, and mother. The actual victim of incest here is a son, but since incest genders all of its victims female (as in prison rape when the raped is invariably viewed as female), it makes little difference, especially since the great majority of incest victims are in fact, girls.

Danny Puner has been alone in prison for fifteen years, serving a manslaughter sentence for murdering his father. He is visited by his sister, Kathrine McLane, who, at age four, was conjoined to her mother’s rejection of, and exile from (to the point of a name change) the Puner family. Now 27 years later, she visits Danny to inform him that his mother is dying. Upon her mother’s death, Katherine continues to visit her brother who is suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder, and has little or no memory of either Katherine or the father’s murder. Since her mother has hidden everything about the father and the family from her, and because she too has blocked out scenes of her father’s sexual assaults from her child’s memory, their meetings serve as steps to re-membering their erased personal histories.

The narrative is convincing and moving, slow and poetic in pace, and honest and direct. Katherine (Juliet Seal, who could play Shakespeare’s Juliet) is the active and healing force in the sometimes smooth and often rocky encounters between the long estranged siblings. Danny (Arvid Larsen) is the inarticulate, disarranged incest victim, who attempts speech on many levels, but who also uses the shelter of several identities to cover for his aggressive, and accusatory behavior toward his sister who to him is as much of an interloper as a liberator. At times even, his threatening gestures seem a shadow of his father. But, in the end Katherine’s visits, her research into his and her past, allows her to arrive at the truths which will set them both free.

Despite Danny’s storms, obviously traceable to his buried rage, the film is never excessive. Much of this restraint is based in the nature of the prison itself, which seems to express a mild disposition much in line with Katherine’s own steady, calming manner. All of the employees and guards are as temperate and human as they are reasonable. This is never spelled out, but rather exists in all the exchanges they have with Katherine and Danny. Not to credit them in the siblings’ reconciliation and just restitution would be a mistake.

But Katherine is the touchstone character. Everything works through her commitment and understanding both to her brother, her mother, and herself. All her movements are directed toward these lives. Her train visits to the prison begin and end the film; her visits to the cemetery provide a kind of mother-daughter pulse which gives the film its meditative depth; and her dauntless, creative searches into her own past surpass even her brother’s inward probing. It’s her self-direction that strengthens and broadens the film’s close-up, microcosmic incest portrayal. Which, in turn, points to centuries of abominable secrecy enveloping a form of criminality which is as despicable as it is prevalent.

Ambiguity Preferable? (movie reivew)

It’s hard to speak about “My Nigh at Maud’s” in words other than those of praise for its filmic qualities… but how’s about taking on meaning. Either this film is pretty ambiguous or I’m missing something. Whether one dissects its parts or observes it whole, it remains ambiguous. So, isn’t ambiguity a good thing? Yes, if its recognition leads to meaning, action, truths. No, if it is simply escape, fence-sitting, or art-for-art’s sake. But is Rohmer’s masterpiece as ambiguous as it appears?   


My guess is that it’s not. Rohmer sets up these distinct dichotomies between religion/piety and atheism/freedom, light and dark, and men and women. He seems somewhat more sympathetic toward the latter, but a proponent of the former. Perhaps he stands with the preacher for whom Christianity is a “way of life,” and “an adventure of sanctity.” But isn’t Rohmer left behind when his priest adds that it “takes madness to become a saint?” I say this because the film’s ending casts a firm vote for form over freedom. But his move away from ambiguity in the direction of form–as opposed to freedom, seems to detract from his genuine classic.

For its Rohmer’s solipsisms (sex, love, marriage) that present the problem. First, his central character’s role is undermined by these. Jean-Louis is initially an absorbing character, a provincial intellectual, with an air of world travel, and independence. There is no disjuncture between him and the incredibly effective mise en scene. He is as particular a man in a very specific place–as is his friend, Vidal, the suave philosophy professor. They breathe the air of this provincial world–and such a rare treat: intellectuals with holds on themselves occupying film space.

But Jean-Louis’s distinction begins to slip early and slides (incidentally, so does Vidal‘s and for similar reasons) during his night at Maud’s. There’s something about the way he chases Francoise–it seems too mundane, too breezy and somewhat obtuse–as if he’s quickly morphing into the default French male. But he does make comebacks–that is, before setting foot in Maud’s apartment. The problem, however, isn’t Maud’s–his holy water piety or self-righteousness are not at issue–nor is Jean-Louis Trintignant’s performance because he fits the original character perfectly. It’s the role. He has not only made a generic male but, more specifically, a Rohmer male–one who exists to experience moral tests via a Rohmer type female who is seductive (always leggy) wily, sophisticated at least in the ways of sex/love/men, and above all, tempting.

As unsettling as Maud may be (see below) again it’s the role that takes him ouf of character, not Maud. He loses his reserve, he becomes too confessional, too awkward–physically and emotionally. He adopts various male postures–the sexually experienced, the wit, the daringly direct, the self-satisfied and he cannot navigate Maud’s rather obvious set-up. Whatever he seemed to have had initially has gone the way of passivity, uncertainty, self-absorption, and dependency. He appears a suckling lying across Maud’s bed, leaning on his elbow, and gaze-talking into her eyes–then mummy wrapped next to her. And he’s lost his warmth (the antithesis of Hitchcock’s Father Logan in “I Confess”) Yet in spite of all this he will, at times, remind of his early identity, and isn’t completely overshadowed by Chermont’s cityscape.

What about the title character, Maud? She’s the dark-eyed, black hair, worldly (the atheist) to Francoise, the blond catholic snow queen. She too is assigned a role, but while Jean-Louis’ is irreversible, hers is reversible—because it cannot contain her longings. However, her expansive identity is not a winning one because it is achieved outside Rohmer’s closed box of marriage, love, and sex (her uncomfortably warm apartment, within which even the Marxist Vidal succumbs) The price of her emotional range, values, freedom, romantic leanings is depressing solitude and broken marriages. But what she gets for playing the role of game mistress, temptress, and mediator to men‘s moral quests, is a chance to expose in these men more than they bargain for. They have to deal with her own acute ambivalence about her roles and also with her uncontrolled consciousness–she would never be among the bevy of girls who Gandhi slept with to test his chastity. She’s a witness to men’s pretenses, “lack of spontaneity,“ “stiffness,” secretiveness, clinical intelligence–and, yes, their so-called moral victories.

In other words, Maud sounds like the point of view character (and this, for me, is the chief reason for the ambiguity I first referred to). But she’s not. She is simply being used as a challenging argument against freedom, and as a mediator of male form and morality. She is free at her own peril–and carries the stigma of freedom. Which she continues to bear five years later in terms of isolation and disappointment in love. She alone is not privy to the infinite compositional shot of Jean-Louis, his pre-selected bride Francois, and their son embracing the beachscape of salvation, their principles of faith, love, and marriage intact. For Rohmer’s lens turns away from those who do not even care to wager on his fabricated, established forms.  


Jeanne’s Script (movie review)

The rare thing about “A Tale of Springtime“–and this is much to Rohmer’s credit–is that Jeanne, the central character, gets to live her own script. The backdrop here is a week or so of rather mundane goings-on and minute realizations, all taking place a step away from her normal comfort zone.


The test for Jeanne, the young saturnine philosophy teacher, is to maintain her freedom and integrity in the face of psychic and social trappings that crop up after having lost her apartments, and/or the orderly interior space that sustains her autonomy. For her this means a calm outward demeanor, thoughtfulness in every sense, and the discernment of emotions and sentiment. Jeanne’s more “fanatic about other people’s freedom” than her own and far more aware of her own intrusiveness than she is of those who plague her.

So much of the film seems to revolve around the concept of containment or Jeanne’s self-containment versus the containers often supplied by the other characters in the movie.

Natasha rescues Jeanne from homelessness only to provide her own crowded spaces. Her convincingly affectionate and youthful friendship rather soon gives way to manipulative match-making, and an expressed pouting hatred for both her mother and her father’s partner. Jeanne’s clear disinclination to any match (sometimes not so convincing because of a single flaw in the film’s script) with Natasha’s father immediately and subsequently hems her into the painful position of being an invasive, even dangerous housemate. And what is more important, Natasha’s orbital switch from Jeanne to her father all but ends their building friendship. Jeanne counters “You never mention your mother except to criticize her.”

Igor, Jeanne’s father, presents a more dramatic challenge to Jeanne’s integrity. He too is fairly convincing in his own budding considerate friendship with Jeanne– this despite the foreshadowing of the reverse in his buttoned-up, hunched physicality (even his hair looks more like a toupee). And even despite Natasha’s gouache hints that he deems Jeanne “not too old” (she is 10 years younger than he) for him and that “he said your not a school marm” and “he doesn’t look at a homely woman–a typical charmer.” But Natasha’s romance set-up at the country place, reveals him for the womanizer he is underneath his “poetic“, smart, youthful way of life. He literally blames Jeanne’s caution as shamming which, of course, makes it easier for Jeanne to escape his menacing trap, and to put an end to his controlling friendship. “I’d never love anyone madly. I’m not mad.” says Jeanne. And she retaliates with anger at Natasha’s manipulative assumptions about her own partnership with Mathieu.

Eve, Igor’s partner, distinctly more world and career bound than Jeanne, doesn’t so much present Jeanne with a test, but she rather serves as a confirmation of Jeanne’s integrity. But Jeanne continually allies herself with Eve because she senses her independence, intelligence, and passion for work. And most importantly, she grasps that she may be “Eve” or “vampire” or “hysteric” to Natasha and Igor, but not to her. So, she is invariably cognizant of Eve’s position and directly defends her speech and actions, understanding that there is a real connection between Eve and Natasha’s “evil” mother, and thus equally defensible. Jeanne is also able to communicate to Eve a great deal about her work– the why, how and where of it–teaching real philosophy to working class students.

Lesser characters provide problems of their own for Jeanne. Her cousin proves herself no real friend by selfishly taking full advantage of Jeanne’s kindness in extending her “sublease;” and Mathieu, Jeanne’s partner, more than being just poetically sloppy (Jeanne can express sheer hatred for his place) is very seemingly a trap man himself, planning a unilateral move and a marriage into the bargain.

The pleasant plot turn at the end of “Springtime” may suggest some relief for Natasha, and a wee bit for Jeanne, but this happy turn is more momentary than deep. And we know there will be little cessation in Jeanne’s vigilant thought life, which seems to be the center piece of this tale. 


Under the Genre (movie review

Yup, this is full of allusions to brilliant German directors, and French and American cinema, but Fassbinders “The American Soldier” is much more than a clever exercise– and cuts deeper than film noir. For this, I think, is as much about the Vietnam War, misogyny, and German/American superiority as it is about an underworld hit man. In fact, the genre seems no more than a departure point. 


Ricky’s inner power is in no way individuated—he’s a type, a type produced by powerful entities. He’s not a man born, but a male made. He’s one of a multiplicity of monsters let loose on the world by the naked display of power–whether it be located in DC or Berlin. His immediate authority resides in his soldier past, and in his male identity–and more specifically, in his heterosexual male identity. He kills men as easily as he commands submission from women.

But he’s not a typical hit man. He’s cool all right, and does cut the figure. But he seems cumbersome, as if new to his form, his movements contained as if by a low ceiling, his body by an uncomfortable suit. He’s “the man” but he seems programmed–and is, simply following orders from his own “the man” who also happens to have state authority. He’s detached, indiscriminate, naked in his actions, and impersonal–his mind almost narcoleptic. There seems to be some flaw in his design, as if the suit made to cover the soldier, and the soldier made to cover the killer, are not totally effective—not for him, not for those who control him. His murders have all the raw arbitrary-ness of the automated martial male, created in an era of war treachery that has no end.

Ricky’s females, a spectrum of femme fatales, have a malaise about them, as if narcotized by drugs, drink, sex, or more obviously, by a submissiveness to power. Ricky orders them in the same precise way he orders his Ballantine–and with the same certainty of availability. He takes them, literally dumps them, mocks them, uses them and, if they get too close, murders them. He has to drink whiskey before every sexual encounter to negate any emotion or doubt. Gay men suffer a similar scorn from the brute, his contempt for the powerless underwritten by the world of organized violence that created and controls him. “So much tenderness in my head, so much emptiness in my bed” is heard over and over during Ricky and his brother’s final sex/death scene. Which might be interpreted that in a perverse world poisoned by super masculinity and violence, sex with the dead is more possible–or preferable than sex with the living. 


Plot Cop-Out  (movie review: Techine’s “Changing Times”)

Can this failed, disjointed plot be saved? Is it is worth saving? 


I think so, but I am probably in the minority. I suggest that the pivotal relationship between Antoine Lavau (Depardieu) and Cecile (Catherine Deneuvre) be resuscitated. There’s enough integrity in the film’s early going to inspire a re-working of two protagonists. I think the trick is to avoid at all costs stereotyping, cynicism, canned emotions, and manipulative plot turns.

First, the Depardieu character is singular (original) and he must stay in character. He is not some freak of nature who needs a Hollywood re-cast. There are shy and introverted men who, often in their twenties, will experience a break-up, maybe from their first real love. A male of this mode, may weather the storm, but gradually his conviction grows that the initial lover was both rarer than what he imagined and possibly even irreplaceable. He may soon become convinced that he blew his one true chance at love. So his affective love gradually shifts back in her direction, displacing thoughts of a new relationship. He may resurrect her photos, be more cognizant of her life, adopt her preferences, and more rarely, prefer to live in more physical proximity to her.

To one degree or another, such a man is under the influence of a romantic ideal. He needs to experience a sense of love, so he returns to the woman who compelled his passion. He realizes that while remarriage is a mere dream, her palpable presence gives pique to his life. He also understands that any obtrusion into her life would run counter to this new realization.

It’s not that she’s an angel, but rather that love put on hold or bracketed never really stops.

In “Changing Times,” (a trite title) Antoine initially appears to be this identical romantic lover. He’s very singular and the not in the least unconvincing. His face is compelling, as is the complexity of his thoughts, the certainty of his emotions. He elicits interest–there is something of us in him, something in him we can learn from, something perhaps instructive in his loneliness. We sense that if he is to actually meet with this woman of his, it will have to be by accident. I mean like why after thirty years of steady love would he suddenly thrust himself on a married woman?

As to Cecile, she too belongs here as the kind of woman who might inspire such memory and lasting love. Although in many ways typically middle class, she projects an independence, a world-weary sophistication, and a realistic sense of her position in life. She hosts a radio show, exercise authority over others, and is self-directed. She is no dreamer, no romantic; she grasps what a cad her younger husband is and deals with him as it suits her. When she meets Antoine she unhesitatingly sets her boundaries, defuses his interest, and projects him as a detail in a busy life.

The movie’s premise works. But the unfolding fails. It’s as if these grown-ups morph into adolescents. Antoine slithers out of character as if he’s suddenly aware of maleness, and is amazed by it. He doesn’t exactly stalk Cecile but his actions and words suggest that continuum. Now his mix of shy and bold seem like a sneaky maneuver, and he can’t seem to get enough of himself. In a tete-a tete with Cecile’s hunky husband, he admits to having many affairs, but of being only impersonally present in them. And as he takes on a more aggressive approach to this man’s wife, his singular anonymous lover image is certainly tarnished. And thus it is that he resorts to direct confrontation, high drama, and on shy, naive guises to effectuate his tricks which serve both to ingratiate himself with Cecile and to insinute himself into her life. And with the help of convenient plot accidents, his assumption of acccess to his ex-lover, is achieved in a manner hardly different than that of any other drippy dude.

If his role is abandoned by Techine, so too is Cecile’s autonomy. She becomes the personification of access. (There is no comedy here, not initially and not now.) When interrupted by a hapless Antoine during a radio broadcast, her rage is over the top–which in turn sets her up for an equally over the top contriteness. Which shatters her independence. And seems to rob her of her volition. Thus she becomes for Antoine a sex therapy operative–one that requires no desire, will, or suggestion on his part. And, of course, after his mud accident, Cecile is then cast as a kind of madonna nurse, and is returned to familial motherhood.

So, thanks to Techine’s cop out direction, and imagination breakdown, two original and interesting characters who promises much in the way of subtle drama, and character development, are sacrificed. The unknown becomes the known. Antoine becomes everyman, and Cecile is reduced to a mother and a mistress.