Monday, December 31, 2007

Feminism and Films

I have been reading Molly Haskell's From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. It is overall a pretty good account of film history seen through a feminist perspective, though in the end a little disappointing for a couple of reasons. First, because the book is structured linearly, with chapters divided into decades (20s, 30s etc.), along with one chapter each devoted to the genre of "Women's Film" and European films, Haskell repeatedly makes the same point over and over again each time taking a new film as an example. This gets tedious after a while, specially if you haven't seen the films. (I skipped over most of 20s and 30s chapters because I have hardly seen anything from those two decades). The second problem is the content and criticism itself. Her approach is resolutely empirical, avoiding any theorising and her insights are mostly sociological (of the popular sort). While I don't particularly care for theoretical jargons and even less for Freudian cliches, her conclusions are often just plain obvious. Avoiding theory also means that the book lacks any specific framework, except perhaps the most obvious one that of exposing the latent sexism in the way women are represented in film, as a result the book is very anarchic in structure and difficult to summarise as I am finding now that I am trying to do it.

There is a misconception that thinking about films in analytical terms, specially about gender related issues, diminishes the "magic" or enjoyment of the films. After all who wants to spoil everything when love is in the air by bringing in politics? As I was reading Haskell's commentaries I was reminded again and again how wrong it is to think like that (not that I needed any convincing in that regard). Thinking of these things actually enriches the experience of watching the films. I was specially interested in reading about Katherine Hepburn, my favourite Hollywood actress from the Golden Age (very closely followed by Barbara Stanwyck). In most of her romantic comedies she starts off as a smart, witty, sarcastic, arrogant and of course funny as hell and then slowly she reveals her "needy" side, is forced to normalize herself for love. Haskell says this about her at one place in the book:

And even in the hands of a sympathetic director like George Stevens or Cukor or Hawks, there was a cutting edge to her parts as written, a kind of ruthless, upper-class eccentricity, that was more a revenge on, than an expression of, her personality. In Woman of the Year, her cosmopolitan political reporter is pitted against Spencer Tracy's no-nonsense, boys-in-the-backroom sports reporter. Their enchanting interplay (this was their first film together) creates a sense of complementary natures and equality which is gradually eroded, then cruelly and dishonestly shattered, as Hepburn's "weaknesses" - her drive, her lack of interest in creating a home and family - are belabored and blackened while Tracy's faults - his philistinism, his "old-fashioned" American values - are softened and colored as virtues by comparison. In The Philadelphia Story, she is attacked from all sides for her supposed coldness, of which there is not a shred of evidence. This is the furtive revenge of mediocrity on excellence; she is being convicted merely for being a superior creature.

An interesting contrast is The African Queen in which it is Bogart who has to adjust his emotional registers as demanded by Hepburn and it is she who is in control throughout the film. Incidentally Haskell doesn't like Huston at all, who she says isn't a misogynist but just not interested in women at all. She finds something very offensive in the portrait of Claire Trevor character in Key Largo, the way she is humiliated by the Edward Robinson's gangster but I thought it was obvious that Huston's sympathies are with her. Anyway, not surprisingly she prefers Howard Hawks more than Huston.

I also wanted to single out a few of her criticisms which I found a little unfair. She disappointingly mentions that most of the "new hollywood" directors like Scorsese, Coppola and others in the 70s were only interested in male subjects. Women characters were either totally absent or else marginalized to peripheries. Of course it is undeniable but it is equally true that most of these films also offered a penetrating critique of conventional masculinities by linking it to violence, oppression, irrationality and injustice. Films like Raging Bull or Taxi Driver have more to say about gender politics than any conventional woman's film. There were of course some glorious exceptions as well like Altman's great whatsit 3 Women or Alan Pakula's Klute, with Jane Fonda in a sensational turn as a smart and thinking prostitute.

The other aspect which I find unconvincing in many of these feminist criticisms is that films about misogyny are often confused with misogynist films. It is interesting that when they are writing about the same issues in Hitchcock's films they are very sensitive about the psychological context of the character. They understand how Hitchcock's camera aligns itself explicitly with the masculine gaze and women always occupy the object positions in his films, and as a result the female characters most often lack autonomy because they are creations of male subjectivity, specially his sexual fears and insecurities. Vertigo and Rear Window are two perfect examples which allow these kinds of feminist readings. But when it comes to other directors she is not as sensitive or generous. Brian de Palma for example is dismissed by Haskell without any fuss. So is David Lynch, my own personal favourite whose films have so much to say about sexuality and its role in shaping identity. Actually the last chapter was added for a new edition of the book and it clearly doesn't fit with the rest of the book. It felt as if she had already made up her mind that we are witnessing the absolute nadir when it comes to the representation of women in Hollywood films. (That was in late eighties).

Manohla Dargis in her review of "There Will Be Blood" recently pointed out, "Like most of the finest American directors working now, Mr. Anderson makes little on-screen time for women." (There are no female characters in the entire film!) It is true most of the interesting directors like those of the "new hollywood" of the 70s aren't interested in making women's films at all. Todd Haynes is an exception whose Safe and Far From Heaven, itself an homage to one of the greatest woman's film of all time, are both glorious. It might also be because of division of labour between films and TV soaps when it comes to gender. It is just a thesis though...

It is of course a vast and a complicated topic. I have already rambled enough. I wanted to write more about the works of David Lynch and also Haskell's discussion of European films but more on that later.


puccinio said...

Molly Haskell is a very good critic and definiely more useful as a feminist critic than say Laura Mulvey.

However I find her argument that Scorsese doesn't have good female characters false. Scorsese's films do have strong women roles and while they are told from the guy's point-of-view it's obvious he doesn't mean want us to think that he's a phallus-worshipper.

He's also quite subversive, in ''Goodfellas'', Henry Hill's wife admits to being turned on because her husband is a gangster.

I agree with you on Katharine Hepburn. The reason why her films of the 30's made her box-office poison was because female roles around her were usually either innocent virginal madonnas or sexy whores. Which is ironic since in the early 30's you had Marlene Dietrich(well she was box-office poison too). Hepburn was brilliant in ''Sylvia Scarlett'',
''Holiday'', ''Bringing Up Baby'' and ''The Philadelphia Story''.

But then I do agree with her when she said that no director today seems to know what to do with women(in American cinema, I mean) . Save for Todd Haynes really. Martin Scorsese also, I'd argue. Gus Van Sant definitely. Robert Altman was a phenomenal director of both men and women and he's gone now. Along with two other super women directors - Michelangelo and Ingmar.

One director who was a beautiful director of women was John Cassavetes. Which is quite surprising for people to understand since this guy acted in that paean to masculinity - ''Dirty Dozen''. His films with Gena Rowlands(who was also his wife) especially ''Opening Night'' are among the finest roles in American Cinema ever enacted by women.

Jabberwock said...

...Altman's great whatsit 3 Women or Alan Pakula's Klute, with Jane Fonda in a sensational turn as a smart and thinking prostitute.

Also Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.

And yes, though I'm a Hitchcock devotee myself, I think many critics of the past two decades have tended to eulogise everything he did while simultaneously dismissing similar, equally interesting perspectives provided by later directors. Difficult to understand how anyone who has seen Carrie, The Fury, Casualties of War and even the lesser Raising Cain can think of DePalma as a misogynist.

P.S. Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck...excellent taste, dude! Incidentally, Kate was named the Most Uncooperative Actress of the Year a record number of times by the Hollywood Press Association - which, given what celebrity journalism is like, can be taken as a high compliment!

KUBLA KHAN said...

Hi alok....happy new year!
i have been conducting a small research on your Vana-prastha!
it is supposed to start at 75, and you must be in a forest! you have to leave everything.....meditate.....i w'd consider it now....unsure if i can last till 75.
what do you say about this doesn't matter if you think it is unrealistic......a blog dedicated to In search of lost time only?
you, antonia and me c'd contribute whenever we can....or for that matter, if it is unrealistic, anything proust related...on a different blog with us as collaborators?
just an idea.....

Alok said...

kubla: I actually said "pseudo-vanprastha" ... you don't have to go to a forest :) but yes you can start off by trying to detach yourself from wordly affairs so that when the time for Sanyas (that's the fourth and final stage of life) comes it is not painful. The collaborative blog idea sounds good but in a way these individual blogs are also works of collaborations in the sense that we think and imbibe ideas from each other.

puccinio: I have actually read Mulvey's essay in a anthology of feminist essays. All those Freudian and psychoanalytic theories leave me very cold but I think a certain familiarity with theoretical ideas is essential, just to give a coherence and firm basis to your observations. It also enables you to utilize your thoughts in other spheres - like politics for example which is what a feminist criticism aims to do.

About Scorsese, that's exactly what I mentioned to. An interest in masculinity doesn't mean that the director has no sympathies with women. Scorsese's films are powerful critiques of conventional masculinities, specially in the way they pave way for violence, emotional repression and all sorts of brutalities. Often women are themselves complicit in its continuance as that Goodfellas example shows. There is a bit of the same in Raging Bull too.

jai: Even among similar directors, de Palma's work is specially maligned for his treatment of gender related issues. Although I am not a big fan myself, I do think his films in general have lots of interesting things to say about the ways in which gender contributes to the construction of identity and also the sources of gender related violence.

Alok said...

excuse the grammar in the previous comment :(

swiss said...

interesting but doesn't sem to be saying anything particularly new. will have a browse tho if i see it.

if you haven't already you might want to hve a check on marina warner's from beast to blonde which is in the same territory if not the same subject. or no go the bogeyman which is also good

Alok said...

it is only a sort of introduction. She doesn't have anything new or specially groundbreaking to say but the book is quite comprehensive in scope.

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