Department of Theatre and Film
Fall 2010 Forum Essays
Melinda Lewis, “Serial Mom: Perverse Pleasure, a Suburban Murderess, and the Prince of Puke”
We kick off our own trash trilogy with the Prince of Puke himself, John Waters, and Serial Mom (1994). Baltimore’s own son has made films that have flown under the radar, challenged social mores, and indulged in bad taste since the mid-1960s when he and his friends would shoot no-budget films in Lutherville, Maryland. Since then Waters has risen to cult status, with films like Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1974), and Desperate Living (1977) cementing his position as one of the most innovative and perverse independent directors. Considering his major influences are Russ Meyer, Herschell Gordon Lewis and William Castle, to call Waters perverse is more of a compliment than anything. Despite his films being classified as “trash,” in retrospect Waters has been accepted as one of the great independent and cult film directors. Shown in art houses and museums, John Waters’s films have walked the line between trash, art, and pornography.
Whether his films are rated X, R, or PG-13, his brand of comedy, as all good comedy should be, is transgressive. It is not just about gratuitous shock value or bad taste, but about pushing the boundaries that hold us to social conventions or compel us to perform certain social roles. Values concerning sex, violence, gender roles, and race are amongst the many issues that are always pushed and prodded in ways that either offend us, make us laugh, or, if a Waters film is truly successful, puke.
Serial Mom may not be in the same shock category as Waters’s early work, but it is still able to catch us off guard and leave a mark on our psyche. Serial killing is not the usual comic material, and Waters uses our own morbid fascination with figures like Ted Bundy, Richard Speck, and Charles Manson to show the pleasure we find in following their exploits.
Part of the fun of this film is the way in which violence is couched in the supposed serenity of suburban life. The credits roll as a wave of violins play over bright blue sky. Birds chirp in the background as the camera pans to a beautiful suburban home and envelopes us in a false and parodic sense of security. Throughout the film we are continually brought back to this sense of calm, which gradually becomes shorter and more absurd, because Beverly Sutphin is the only one who gets the performance. It’s clear throughout the film that she understands the expectations and rules of being a woman in the suburbs. We can actually see her thinking through her negotiation between serial killer and ideal wife/mother.
This film tackles the illusion of the model family and the extent one must go in order to maintain the perfect and unattainable image of the perfect family. The main character, Beverly Sutphin, who becomes “serial mom,” is Harriet Nelson, June Cleaver, and all the other iconic TV mothers who helped shape what we consider the perfect mom. Throughout the beginning of the film, Sutphin is reaffirmed by others as totally normal, but what Waters does best is show that the more somebody or something is “normal,” the more perverse he/she must be in order to keep up appearances.
Sutphin murders people for reasons that seem fairly banal, but as framed by the film (and maybe this says more about me), are justifiable. The real transgressive nature of the film is that enjoyment comes while watching her kill each of her victims. The depiction of her immense pleasure in murdering her victims becomes our pleasure. The fact that serial killing is treated comedically is pushing a boundary. To have a woman committing murder is further crossing such a line, and to actually depict a woman deriving pleasure from such acts is sublimely obscene.
By the end it is understandable why people travel to watch Beverly’s trial, why television and film studios compete for the rights to her story, and, finally, why people would pay for a t-shirt or a trading card with her name and face attached. This is the true nature of the film: a mirror to our own national obsession with murders and those who commit them. While true crime books like Helter Skelter (Bugliosi, 1974) are used as evidence against Sutphin, the question as to why those books exist in the first place is never examined because we already know why there is such a steady supply of such texts: we love the grisly details. We want to quickly flip to the middle of the books and see the pictures, as I did when I would sneak into my parents’ bedroom and look for the pictures in my mother’s books about those normal people hiding a deadly secret. We will agree murder is wrong and yet buy into it or support the state’s endorsement of capital punishment. We will follow the trials of Ted Bundy, tune into the made-for-TV movie of Charles Manson, or even follow the stories of lesser known murderers scattered across the news or in Tru Tv’s programming.
These are the type of contradictions explored throughout this film using the smallest of details and references. Fluctuating between normality and absurdity, the film takes us on a strange journey through an important time in the life of Beverly Sutphin, Serial Mom, and hopefully by the end you will love her as much as I do.
Bugliosi, Vincent. Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders. New York: Norton, 1974 (print).
Serial Mom. Dir. John Waters. Savoy Pictures, 1994 (film).
Kevan A. Feshami, “Two Thousand Maniacs! in Cultural Context”
In the summer of 1963, exploitation director Herschell Gordon Lewis and his partner and producer David F. Friedman quietly released their newest feature at a drive-in outside of Peoria, Illinois. For two filmmakers whose body of work consisted primarily of soft core pornography and “nudist camp” movies, this current picture was a significant departure. Believing that they could reap greater profits by doing something radically new and different, the duo abandoned nudity for this latest film, opting for a fresh theme that they felt would garner them greater profits. The result was Blood Feast, which, as you might guess from its title, was a bloody movie. In fact, in 1963, it was quite conceivably the goriest film made to that point. Shot in a little under a week on a budget of twenty-four thousand dollars, Blood Feast’s debut in Peoria proved far more successful than either Lewis or Friedman had imagined. Presumably on the strength of its graphically violent content, the film’s success continued when it was released across the United States, where it returned a gross of four million dollars. Despite its financial achievements, however, Blood Feast was, in technical terms, a “bad” movie. Lambasted by critics, it was declared a “totally inept horror shocker,” so awful it was “an insult even to the most puerile and salacious of audiences” (Variety). (I would like to note here, though, that while the critics may have been unkind, Blood Feast is certainly a movie that is so bad it’s great.)
Impressed by Blood Feast’s excellent returns and well aware that their movie was a far cry from a cinematic masterpiece, Lewis and Friedman determined they could be even more successful with graphic violence if they made a “decent picture” (qtd. in Palmer 66). This effort at competency translated into a whopping six thousand dollar increase in budget over Blood Feast and a slightly lengthened shooting schedule (Palmer 66), the result of which is tonight’s feature Two Thousand Maniacs!. Possessing greater narrative coherence alongside relatively (and I stress relatively) better acting and production value than its predecessor, Maniacs nevertheless grossed only half of what Blood Feast made. While the precise reason for this drop in box office revenue is impossible to determine, Lewis has noted later in interviews that this experience reminded him that “there’s no relationship between a good picture and making money” (qtd. in Palmer 81). In addition, Lewis has contended that Blood Feast broke new ground with its excessive depictions of gore and that Two Thousand Maniacs, whose violence is significantly less graphic, lacked the novelty that drove its predecessor to box office success. There is a certain plausibility to this argument, especially given that none of Lewis’s and Friedman’s other gore films grossed as much as Blood Feast. Regardless, Two Thousand Maniacs is still a fun little movie, resplendent with campy goofiness despite Lewis’s and Friedman’s best efforts at cinematic competency.
But Two Thousand Maniacs is also more than just a goofy old movie; when considered in its historic context, it offers several opportunities for interesting readings. I feel it is important to note that Lewis would be the first person to say that his films lack any kind of hidden commentary or meaning. Indeed, this is a person who has stressed in a number of interviews that he “see[s] filmmaking as a business and pit[ies] anyone who regards it as an art form” (Wisniewski). Yet, whether or not Lewis deliberately wrote the script of Two Thousand Maniacs as a social commentary is immaterial; as a film set and produced in the southern United States in the 1960s, a region grappling with desegregation in the wake of the civil rights movement, it inevitably invites certain kinds of readings. Images of nooses and torch-bearing mobs, combined with the film’s ending (which I won’t ruin for you), evoke the ghostly legacy of racial violence that was all too real in Two Thousand Maniacs’ contemporary era, and, consequently, that still haunts the United States today. Moreover, the film’s treatment of poor, rural, white southerners invites its own reading of race and class, especially in light of the claim by some that the “hillbilly” or “redneck” is one of the last conventionally acceptable stereotypes in American culture.
It is also important, I think, to not lose sight of the fact that Two Thousand Maniacs is an exploitation film, or is at least considered one. The definition of exploitation as it applies to filmmaking is rather convoluted and a subject of some debate, but it is generally accepted that the term refers to a type of picture that promotes through advertising some aspect of its content over other aspects like acting, production values, or plot. Sometimes this content can be what is considered salacious—usually sex, nudity, or violence—but can also be just about anything, including action, current events (be they scandalous or not), popular music, or whatever else an exploiteer believes can be successfully promoted. “Now hold on a minute,” some of you might ask, “how is this any different from so-called blockbusters like Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) or Avatar (James Cameron, 2009) that promote their special effects above everything else?” Well, I can only tell you that there really isn’t a difference, and perhaps the better question is why a movie like Two Thousand Maniacs is regarded as an exploitation movie when movies like Jurassic Park, Avatar, or even Titanic (James Cameron, 1997) are not.
It should also be stressed that many of Lewis’s and Friedman’s films, including Two Thousand Maniacs, influenced a number of filmmakers, musicians, and other figures of popular culture. Fans of the Misfits may remember the song “Blood Feast,” which was written as a tribute to the Lewis and Friedman production. Even Michael Moore used the spoken admonition that played before the original trailer for Blood Feast in Capitalism: A Love Story (2009). Lewis and Friedman were perhaps most influential, however, on John Waters, whose film Serial Mom (1994), which screened here at the Gish last week, contains a scene of its characters watching Blood Feast. Waters even went so far as to name one of his films Multiple Maniacs (1970) in honor of Two Thousand Maniacs. So, people who were here last week should keep an eye out for similarities you might notice between tonight’s film and Serial Mom, or any of Waters’ other films for that matter.
Finally, a quick note on the violence in the film. As I have already mentioned, the graphic violence and gore of Two Thousand Maniacs is significantly less than that of Blood Feast. By today’s standards, the bulk of it is actually quite tame. Still, there are a few scenes that are unpleasant, so let this serve as a heads up.
Palmer, Randy. Herschell Gordon Lewis, Godfather of Gore: The Films. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2000 (print).
Two Thousand Maniacs. Dir. Heerschell Gordon Lewis. Box Office Spectaculars, 1964 (film).
Variety. Variety Film Reviews. Volume 11. New York, NY: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1983 (print).
Wisniewski, John. “The Wizard of Gore: Herschell Gordon Lewis Speaks!” Bright Lights Film Journal. 1/19/10 <http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/34/lewis.php>.
Angie Fitzpatrick, “Sweet Kittens and Sharp Claws: Gender Politics in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!”
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) is a campy, titillating tale of renegade women in pursuit of power. Written and directed by Russ Meyer, the film is a classic example of the exploitation genre, as it explores the relationship between sex and violence when a gang of go-go dancing drag racers become killers on the run. By the time Faster Pussycat hit the theaters in 1965, Meyer had become the “King of the Nudies” and was well-known for films that often resembled little more than soft-core pornography, such as The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959) and Mudhoney (1965). He is well-known for directing Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), which portrayed the decadence of rock and roll subculture in the late 1960s. Meyer’s position as a cult icon was solidified when Malcolm McLaren approached Myer and his friend Roger Ebert, who wrote the screenplay for Beyond the Valley, to make a film about British punk band The Sex Pistols called Who Killed Bambi?. (Unfortunately, they never completed this project.) Still, Meyer continued making exploitation films well into the 1970s, and by the end of his career, he was credited with launching the sex-film industry and making nudity part of mainstream Hollywood (Briggs 22).
Among his two dozen plus films, Faster Pussycat has become one of Meyer’s most popular. Initially the film was not well-received. However, in the years since it has become a camp classic, beloved by both men and women, including camp king John Waters who has said that Faster Pussycat was “beyond doubt, the best movie ever made” (Briggs 24). One of the things about the film that makes it so appealing is its portrayal of 1960s subculture – the deviant rock ‘n’ roll go-go dancers and drag-racers – pitted against preppy beach culture, exemplified by Linda and her boyfriend, and against (dying) conservative, rural American culture, exemplified by the old man and his two sons who live on a dilapidated ranch.
Yet another reason why Faster Pussycat has become a culturally significant film is its portrayal of uncharacteristically powerful women – both physically and sexually – at a time when women were socialized to be pretty and demure so that they could attract a nice husband and raise a happy family. One of the most compelling characters in the film is the Amazonian hell cat Varla, portrayed by Tura Satana, a go-go dancer and martial artist turned actor. When I watch this film, I cannot help but think of how startling and exciting it would have been for audiences in 1966 to see a woman such as Varla kicking ass and taking names.
The 1960s have been memorialized within the American cultural memory as a complicated decade, characterized by radical social changes. For women, in particular, this decade represented both overt patriarchal oppression and overt resistance to such oppression, in the form of the burgeoning second wave feminist movement. In 1963, two years prior to the release of Faster Pussycat, Betty Freidan published The Feminine Mystique, a book that exposed the discontentment of white middle-class housewives in the suburbs. Freidan’s readers received this book as call to arms: no longer satisfied with baking pies for their families, these women demanded a piece of the pie for themselves. In 1966, one year after Faster Pussycat was released, Freidan and others founded the National Organization for Women, an organization devoted to securing women’s rights in the workplace, in the home, in the educational system, and in the political arena. We might ask ourselves then, to what extent does a film like Faster Pussycat speak to women’s demands for equal rights?
Hailed by some as a feminist film and denounced by others as sexist trash, Faster Pussycat is a complicated text that invites a wide variety of readings. Of course Meyer has said that he did not set out to make anything more than a fun and sexy film and in fact, he said in one interview that he wanted to make Faster Pussycat a film that would turn men on (Briggs 25). Still, it is important for us to keep in mind that cultural texts, such as film, are not created in a vacuum but instead are located within specific social contexts. In other words, popular culture is indeed informed by cultural events. Besides, Faster Pussycat was not the only film of its kind at this time. In 1968 Herschel Gordon Lewis released She Devils on Wheels, an exploitation film about a violent all-female motorcycle gang called Maneaters, not that unlike Faster Pussycat. Clearly, there was something about the social climate of the 1960s that inspired films depicting powerful and seductive but ultimately dangerous women. Thus we might ask ourselves: how does Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! speak to the gender politics of this era?
The answer to this question lies in the various representations of gender that are present in the film, from the insatiable psychopath Varla to the naïve teeny-bopper Linda, from the disabled patriarch to his exceptionally strong, but ultimately impotent son. The politics of the film are further complicated by the ways in which these different manifestations of gender inform the power dynamics between characters. What happens when women cross the boundaries of traditional femininity and take on more masculine characteristics? Is it effective for women to use their sexuality to manipulate men? What happens to women who want it all and will stop at nothing to get it? In short, is Faster Pussycat a celebration of empowered women or a cautionary tale of what happens when women have access to power?
Briggs, Joe Bob. “Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film.” Cineaste, Winter 2005. pp. 20 – 26.
Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Dir. Russ Meyer. Eve Productions, 1965 (film).
Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Norton, 1963 (print).
Lizabeth Mason, “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers: Love and the Film Noir”
Is the strange object of Martha Ivers’s desire her childhood sweetheart Sam Masterson, the hard-boiled boy from the wrong side of the tracks? Or is it her husband, Walter O’Neil, who claims to be “sick inside?” Perhaps Martha does not love any man; could her strange affection be an obsession with the power she commands as the C.E.O. of the local manufacturing company? Personally, after several viewings of this film, I can’t help but wonder if something darker and sinister could be the object of Martha’s strange desire. Either way, this is a film that is investigating love, in all its varied incarnations. Traditional conceptions of the film noir genre would tend to diminish this element of the narrative, but a brief investigation into the role of love within this example of film noir suggests that further consideration of romance within these films is warranted.
Literally translated from the French as “black” or “dark film,” the title of the genre didn’t just come from the frequent use of black and white film stock. The constant confrontation with the corruption, greed, and moral ambiguity characteristic of post-World War Two American culture within the classic films noir of the 40s and 50s seemed to fit the color schema of the films. These narratives pit a “tough guy” with a rigid sense of right and wrong against the world. Frequently, his fight isn’t just for survival; he must help save other disempowered people from injustice. The film noir hero is dependent upon wealthy clients who hire him to investigate the secrets of their elite world. Ultimately, his investigative work reveals a horrible misuse of power which the hero, because of his middle or lower class identification, feels obligated to equalize. While the element of class conflict invades every element of classic films noir, it is arguably most evident in the noir hero’s romantic relationships. Films noir depend on the femme fatale for the purpose of their romantic plot lines. Known for her manipulations of the men around her to garner wealth and power, the femme fatale is irresistible to the noir protagonist. Her attractive qualities depend upon her excessive performance of femininity which is constructed through the combination of several markers of wealth. It is this class construction that makes the femme fatale both a love interest and antagonist for the film noir hero, who is equally drawn to and repelled by the high society he enters during the course of the plot.
Because traditional readings of the genre do not focus on the issue of love, it may seem bizarre that The Strange Love of Martha Ivers would focus so strongly on romance. Yet the film serves as an excellent example for the way in which love factors into the genre overall. Although it may be an unusual reading of the genre, it is arguable that all noir films could be characterized as romances. The only problem is they’re realistic love stories, the kind of love stories that don’t gloss over the unappealing elements that characterize so many romantic relationships. Rather than the traditionally idealized Hollywood representations of romance, these films expose the power dynamics inherent within many real-life performances of romantic interaction.
It is the prominence of this constant negotiation of power dynamics that causes many viewers to diminish the role of love within the films. For this tension amongst the lovers in these films reveals greater sources of class and gender conflict in American society. Frequently this cultural commentary comes in the guise of a choice between two women. The noir hero finds himself interested in two, both equally seductive, women who are separated by their performances of their gender and class. This choice is essentially between a “good girl” (or at worst, a girl whose motivations are misunderstood by the other characters) and the deadly femme fatale. The former character archetype is forced by unfortunate circumstances related to her lower class standing to do bad things in an attempt to survive in a society that is stacked against her. The latter character tends to be bad just for the fun of it. Generally the femme fatale, with her obvious class distinctions, is constructed as either a social climber or a member of the elite world the protagonist is investigating. Ultimately, the negotiations of power that characterize these bizarre love triangles reveal the societal disempowerment of women during the time period. The fact that many of the women attempting to achieve equality within their romantic relationship (despite how deviously they may go about it) are narratively punished by death, incarceration, or other restrictions to their freedom seems to undermine the romantic elements within the films.
So what does any of this have to do with love? Traditionally when we think of a love story, we don’t come running to representations of the corrupt systems of oppression that are so common in film noir. But the fact of the matter is that romance, like any relationship, is a power struggle. The cultural minimization of this key element within the experience and performance of love only hinders the ability to realistically negotiate this tension. Ideally, romance is characterized by a balanced process of a “give and take” exchange of power. But as film noir likes to point out, we don’t live in an ideal world.
This brings us back to the film because the Iverstown of 1946 is anything but an ideal world. It is a corrupt place where immoral politicians, dirty cops, and power hungry heiresses run amok. In the midst of all this vice our good-hearted protagonist finds himself with a difficult decision between the girl of his dreams and “the one who got away.” The product of a troubled childhood, Sam Masterson has spent most of his life on the run. From his wise-cracks, swift punches, and his excellent gambling skills the audience can tell he is tough. But look a little deeper and we see that he is just as vulnerable as the rest of humanity. This is why he takes the first opportunity possible to rescue a damsel in distress. Enter Toni Maracheck, portrayed by Lizabeth Scott, who is a woman who has been dealt a bad hand one too many times. Her character is a woman who has been recently released from jail after being wrongly accused of a crime, the result of her being given a (potentially) stolen fur coat. This background seems to be the cause of Scott’s sultry performance. Maracheck’s sexuality seems to burn from a deeper anger at the injustices that she encounters as a woman without money. Just like Sam, she can see past the appearances of respectability that the authority figures of Iverstown assume. And Toni wants nothing to do with it.
On the other hand Martha is not such an honorable woman. Like Toni, Martha is convinced that she is the victim of bad luck. Orphaned at a young age and forced to live with an aunt who gives any dictator a run for their money, Martha’s character seems to be just as trapped by circumstances as Toni. Barbara Stanwyck also gives a very seductive performance that makes being bad look so good. But in the end, that is ultimately what Martha is – just plain bad. Ivers is not smoldering with indignation at her misfortune. Instead, there is something much more sinister warming her heart. This is best evident in the emotions Stanwyck reveals in her eyes. There are moments, such as the one where she tries to kill Sam with a burning log, in which Martha is transformed from a beautiful seductress into a horrific monster solely through a psychopathic gleam in her eyes.
It is between these two women that Sam Masterson must choose. Ultimately his decision is made through the slow process of getting to know the two women he is romantically attached to. This is the only way he can find the right girl to fit his impeccable sense of integrity. And isn’t this the key element of any good love story: the promise that anyone can find the one person who completes them? During the course of the story we learn some pretty disturbing and twisted things about several of the main characters. But, in the end, we can all rest assured that just like any traditional love story, each member of this bizarre love quadrangle finds the love he or she deserves. Thus, the two characters that have been manipulated by the wealthy elite of Iverstown end the film driving out West, and Martha ultimately attains her true love, however ambiguously it is defined.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. Dir. Lewis Milestone. Paramount Pictures, 1946 (film).
Melinda Lewis, “D.O.A.: Poisoning the Film Noir Hero and Middle Class Values as Antidote”
When we think of introductions, or have others introduce the films for the series, we like to provide a bit of context, some thinking points that offer an intellectual rationale as to why the film is featured as part of the series and what its cultural significance is. Upon reflection, the film noir D.O.A (Rudolph Maté, 1950) is, simply put, a strange film. It is strange in the fact that it is not strange, which actually makes it more strange. Confusing, perhaps, but the contradictory nature of the film’s genre, alongside the film’s heavy-handed message, provides a puzzling and at times contradictory text.
D.O.A. is textbook film noir, which, given the fact that the term was not heavily used until much later, is quite impressive. Director Rudolph Maté was no stranger to the visual styles that mark the genre. Having acted as cinematographer for such films as Charles Vidor’s Gilda (1946) and Orson Welles’s The Lady From Shanghai (1947), the dark visualization of D.O.A. conveys the panic of dealing with one’s own death. If one of the hallmarks of film noir is male anxiety, the film’s main character, Frank Bigelow is a prime example. He is the man in the gray flannel suit, who finds it difficult to commit to his girlfriend and secretary, Paula, and seeks excitement. Though he believes himself to have complete control over his actions, once he discovers his own poisoning, he becomes hysterical and irrational. Rather than attempt to accept his fate, he decides to pursue a mystery.
At times, the film reveals the filmmaker’s awareness of what is expected of this type of film. Indeed, there are points throughout the film that seem to intentionally highlight some of the absurdities of the film noir genre. The relationship between male protagonists and women, for example, are caricatured through nondiegetic whistles/kazoos that are used on the soundtrack to accentuate moments when Bigelow ogles a woman. Extended and often complicated plots are highlighted with a lengthy explanation as to the type of poison used to kill Bigelow. With such a short film, the long explanation appears to be used in order to clarify any concerns the audience may have about the possibility of a convoluted plot. Finally, even if Hollywood noir films of the period reaffirmed American values on the surface, their darker messages emerged in implications. D.O.A., however, is more explicit with the heavy-handed nature of the film’s overall message: accept your fate and play a part in building the American dream. In other words, strive for mediocrity.
As exciting as it is to watch a dying accountant find out who killed him and why, the film itself is steadily conservative, for if only Frank Bigelow would have stayed Banning, California with his confidante and possible wife, Paula, and not taken his vacation in the exciting and dangerous San Francisco, he would still be alive. Paula becomes representative of safety. She is what grounds him and she embodies what he has actually lost at the film’s end (beyond merely his life): wife, family, order, the social expectations and conventions of the time. While films of the period always contain a type of moral lesson to this effect, D.O.A. does not even attempt to disguise it, which is what marks this film as unique. The images of happy couples and parents become Bigelow’s focus after he finds out that he has been poisoned, reminding him of what he will never have. These scenes coupled with his final words (the name of the woman who offered him domestic life), blatantly point to a prioritization of family life and domesticity. The end is heavy-handed in its moral. Bigelow had plenty of opportunities to settle for the family life Paula incessantly offers him, but he comes to his senses far too late.
And this is, in turn, what makes the film such an oddity. At least the other films of this genre try to be a little more slippery or ambiguous with their moral coding, whereas D.O.A. does not hide its message beneath its dark aesthetic, sexually frenzied jazz scenes, and roundabout plot. The ways in which the film handles the character of Bigelow, who follows the role of the cool noir protagonist (adventurous, looking for truth, seeking danger, falling into the traps that only alcohol and womanizing can offer, looks good in a suit), are all negated in the final scenes as fairly fruitless qualities as Bigelow approaches his own mortality. The qualities that he should have strived for, and what the audience is encouraged to admire, is his reckoning with the fact that what he really wanted all along was the stability that only middle class family life can offer. Whether or not this was Maté’s intent or an instance of genre play remains debatable. But I still encourage you to watch for who or what is actually dying within the film and what we are left with when the final stamp marks the end Frank Bigelow’s life.
D.O.A. Dir. Rudolph Maté. United Artists, 1950 (film).
Katie S. Barak “The Thin Man: The Mixology of Class and Classiness”
The thing with introductions, especially introductions before a film you have not seen, is that they can sometimes spoil the plot. Not wanting to veer away from tradition, here are three spoilers from The Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke 1934): a crime will be solved; the main characters are charming and audiences in the 1930s fell in love with their witty repartee; so much alcohol is consumed that cocktails are a character in themselves. Now that I have paid my debt to tradition, we can focus on a few elements that contribute to this film.
The Thin Man is a mystery, but despite the body count, there is not much physical action. The movement is in the dialogue; the words are witty and come quick. The rapid banter spills with ease from the lips of both Nick and Nora Charles, as well as their motley associates. Your ears will need to be nimble because much of the humor is stashed in double entendres and asides. Solving the crime may be the impetus for the plot, but the driving forces are comedy and the relationships between Nick, Nora, Asta, their dog, and the characters they encounter.
As I mentioned, alcohol is an uncredited star in The Thin Man; it makes an appearance in almost every scene. Another character punctuating the plot is Asta (Skippy), the Charles’ wire-haired fox terrier. He serves as a cue for audience understanding. In response to drunken guests singing off key and crying in the living room, Asta covers his ears. When things get too romantic for the Hays Code, Asta covers his eyes. He clears out when things get tough and hides from danger multiple times. Asta tells the audience how to feel while providing a little canine comic relief. Skippy, whose name was later changed to Asta officially, starred in several films during the 1930s, including two of the sequels to The Thin Man, as well as The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey 1937), Bringing up Baby (Howard Hawks 1938), and Topper Takes a Trip (Norman Z. McLeod 1938). This presence in American cinema performance left quite an impression on American audiences and Asta inspired a nationwide craze for wire-haired terriers that possibly contributed to the over-breeding of wire-haired fox terriers at that time (Woolf).
In addition to changing the course of dog breeding, this film also popularized the notion of a husband and wife mystery solving team. Nick and Nora, played by William Powell and Myrna Loy, are by far the chicest crime-solving alcoholics in Hollywood. And in the same way that the AMC series Mad Men (2007-present) makes non-smokers ready to pick up the habit, The Thin Man makes drinking look like the best idea in the world. Alcohol is not viewed as a reprehensible vice and drunkenness is not a shortcut to behaving irresponsibly as it is in so many movies today. Rather, alcohol serves as the root of humorous situations and a ravenously pursued hobby of the elegant couple. Yes, they drink copious amounts, but their drunkenness is portrayed as stylish, and an aid to keeping the one-liners flowing and propelling Nick and Nora toward the suspects.
Adding to the stylishness of these characters is the phenomenal costuming. Smoking jackets, silk pajamas, satin gowns, and an onslaught of ridiculous sleeves - Nick is the definition of dapper and Nora’s glamorous designs are truly inspired. Take note of the marked difference between clothing based in ostentatious, rich fabrics that reflect light, versus the more practical wools that absorb light. The costuming choices subtly portray the class status of characters.
Beyond the clothes, notice the differentiations within a class, particularly the wealthy. Nick comes in to Nora’s money when he marries her, and they are depicted as urbane, flirtatious, and very much in love. The money isn’t something they sought, so much as something that just happened to fall into their laps. Based on Nick’s commentary, he lives a life of leisure and does not need to work as a detective anymore. His job, as he jokingly puts it, is to keep his eyes on Nora so she “doesn’t lose any of the money he married her for.”
This situation is not much different from the other rich characters. Memi Wynant and her boy-toy Chris Jorgenson are also accustomed to an elite lifestyle and their funds come from her ex-husband, the inventor, Mr. Wynant, through alimony and allowances. However, rather than coming across like the Charleses, both Mimi and Chris seem nervous, suspicious, and consumed by the desire to get money. How does this instruct us as viewers to feel about those who have money versus those who seek money? Considering this film came out when the nation was in the throes of the Great Depression, what does this portrayal say about appropriate channels for expressing want? And how has this changed? Currently, America is mired in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. With films like Get Rich or Die Trying (Jim Sheridan 2005), Fun with Dick and Jane (Dean Parisot 2005), Hustle and Flow (Craig Brewer 2005), and Boiler Room (Ben Younger 2000) coming out in the past decade, I have to wonder how issues of class, money, and the pursuit of wealth are meant to be understood by economically diverse audiences. Why are certain classed characters permitted to seek out moneymaking initiatives while in others this objective is deemed unsavory? How do films instruct us to express want or need? And how might The Thin Man have functioned similarly for audiences during the Depression?
The Thin Man. Dir. W.S. Van Dyke. MGM, 1934 (film).
Woolf, Norma Bennett. "Dog Owner's Guide Profile: The Fox Terrier." Dog Owner's Guide.
Web. 02 Oct. 2010. <http://www.canismajor.com/dog/foxterr.html>.
Mallory Jagodzinski, “His Girl Friday: Hildy and Happily-Ever-After”
With its witty repartee and fast-paced plot and dialogue, His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940) serves as one of the best examples of screwball comedy, as we watch Walter Burns, the editor of a newspaper, attempt to stop his star reporter and ex-wife, Hildy Johnson, from leaving the paper to settle down to a life of domesticity with insurance salesman Bruce Baldwin. Directed by Howard Hawks, this film also poses interesting questions about the ethics of journalism and the messy job of reporting the “truth.” But, as a romance scholar trained in literary analysis and feminist theory, I’d like to highlight some of the complexities of our heroine Hildy Johnson, especially in regards to the historical context of the film. Released in 1940, His Girl Friday brought to light an unease felt by many middle-class white women beginning in the early 1920s: the pull between career, societal ideals of gender roles, and love. Keeping in mind that the character of Hildy was a male in the stage version of this film, we can recognize Hildy as a sort of anomaly in the workplace. She is different from the other women we see in the movie. Hildy moves: she is a force that moves with purpose, whether that purpose is getting the attention of her ex-husband, Walter, or scoring the lead on a red-hot story. Hildy is determined, vivacious, cunning, and most of all, good at what she does. These qualities that make her the best reporter at The Morning Post—we hear everyone from Walter to the girls at the switchboards to the reporters in the press room proclaim such—are often coded as qualities belonging to a man. At the same time, we see that she is also different from her male co-workers and coded as feminine. She is kind, attuned to the ways in which others react, and compassionate—when it aids her in getting the scoop. This combination of qualities is what makes Hildy a dynamic and wonderful protagonist to watch as we see her struggle with conflicting desires.
On one hand, Hildy is drawn to the comfortable and stable Bruce Baldwin. While Bruce may represent the banality of suburban life and conformity to gender ideals, there is obviously something that makes him attractive to Hildy. For a woman who breaks the mold in so many ways, she longs for the kind of life Bruce can give her: a life of comfort, stability, and attention; all things that were lacking in her marriage to Walter. Hildy is intrigued by the opportunity to perform her gender role by being Bruce’s wife and not being a byline. She wants to see what a life of normalcy could bring her by being a doting wife and mother. In addition to a “normal” life, Hildy would get a “normal” husband. Bruce is nothing like Walter. He is sweet and kind and someone who is morally good at the core. Unfortunately, he’s not the brightest star in the sky. His view of the world colors those he meets. Indeed, he is convinced that Walter Burns is a “really nice guy” when Walter is quite obviously anything but.
Walter Burns is the man Hildy can’t seem to leave, and one of the biggest reasons for that is that he is inextricably tied to her career and her success as a reporter. Walter and Hildy have such a comfortable working relationship that it must have been inevitable that they would end up married to each other. They thrive on each other’s passion, and Walter clearly holds Hildy and her abilities in the highest esteem. He understands her drive and the side of her that is calculating and cunning, a side to which Bruce remains willfully blind. Walter is both the best and the worst thing for Hildy. He never stops to listen to her or pay attention to her when she isn’t working on a story; he continually dangles temptation in front of her in order to keep her in her job at The Morning Post and with him; he has few, if any, moral qualms about what it takes to sell more papers than anyone else. He is, in short, a jerk. But he is also the one person in the movie quick enough and smart enough to keep up with Hildy. He supports her career endeavors whole-heartedly, constantly praising the work she does. He tempts Hildy in all sorts of ways, but she remains wary because she knows that he can never offer her the stability and attention she craves. If she chooses Walter, she will always remain second to the story.
And herein rests the complexities of desire: does Hildy, our ever-capable heroine, get what she wants? What does Hildy want, and what sacrifices is she prepared to make in order to have the life she wants? Will marrying Bruce bring her fulfillment if she has to constantly suppress her ruthless reporter personality? Will going back to Walter make her happy if he never makes her “feel like a woman” and blurs the boundaries between their personal and professional lives? If Walter is clearly Hildy’s equal, why is she the one making the sacrifices for their relationship? Does Hildy walk back into the offices of The Morning Post because she can’t leave Walter or because she can’t leave behind the job?
I’ll leave it up to you decide. Whichever way you look at it, though, Hildy is the one compromising to be with either man, which brings up the question of whether or not a woman can have it all, especially in the historical context of the film. Keep in mind that middle-class women at this point typically entered the workforce during their late teens and early twenties and then quit upon receiving an offer of marriage. Hildy’s struggle to balance her personal and professional lives is still relevant today as women all over the world struggle with judgment from all sides. Working mothers are pitted against stay-at-home moms in the battle over family values and feminism, and we are no closer to accepting the fact that maybe one size doesn’t fit all and that perhaps men should be part of this conversation as working fathers and stay-at-home dads. Like Hildy, we struggle to make the decision that is right for us and will give us our happily ever after.
His Girl Friday. Dir. Howard Hawks. Columbia Pictures, 1940 (film).
Justin Philpot, “Near Dark and the Vampire Western”
Near Dark is the quintessential vampire western, which would be a silly idea if we didn’t already accept both the fluidity and the constraints of Hollywood film genres. If pressed, we’d probably have to admit that the western is the dominant form, with conventional notions of the vampire film layered over. But what makes the film horrifying, what is intended to scare us, transcends this simple act of addition. We’re never told Mae, Jesse, Severn, Homer and Diamondback are vampires – it’s terribly obvious. We’re given very little background about who they were before they turned, because it doesn’t matter. They exist – that’s scary enough. The general uneasiness of the film, however, rests someplace else – in our expectations. We’re shown everything we’d expect to see in a western, except the west. The expansiveness of the frontier has been cut through with roads, bars and motels. The potential and promise of the open plains has been achieved, consolidated around small towns and industry, leaving only dark spaces in between. The members of the vampire clan are not stand-ins for John Ford’s Indians, or even real ones, they’re simply from out of town.
People die badly in this film. The quiet sadism of the vampire clan is less a collection of personal quirks than a family tradition. Victims are toyed with, tricked, left to think about what is about to happen to them, all of it bad. For individuals who can live forever, taking their time means something altogether different than it does for the unfortunate mortals who happen to cross their path. And the sad reality is they only have to meet you once. They are ambush predators, not hunters, relying on numbers, human behavior and somebody else’s bad luck to survive.
Bigelow’s west is very small, reflected in close ups and always marked by civilization. This is in sharp contrast to someone who Bigelow has often been unjustly compared, ex-husband and best picture challenger James Cameron. Cameron, who can make the interior of a sinking cruise ship seem expansive, is after something altogether different than Bigelow, a director capable of rendering a sniper duel in the Iraqi desert in the most intimate terms. Driven to expose motivation rather than create spectacle, Bigelow’s characters are often framed as if we were studying them under glass. The world they inhabit is just as constraining, writ just as small and just as tidy as we would expect of a small town, a police station, a bar, a pick-up truck. Jesse’s clan represents something romantic, something of the freedom of the west, but inverted, so we can see precisely how much we’d have to give up to get it. Of course, they never could give it up themselves: the very freedom they represent would be impossible to sustain without the modern life they seem so willing to disavow. This speaks less to the contradictions of American life expressed in the western film than the very real tension between our perceived place in American society as people, with our goals and sense of self, and our daily, lived existence.
This is Bigelow’s first independently directed film, and there are some rough edges. As Caleb makes his way back to Mae after trying unsuccessfully to go home, there is an odd montage sequence marked by several wipes. Not sure what’s up with that. More than anything, the soundtrack dates this film, something to be expected given the intended audience for the film, that is to say, teenagers. Caleb’s duel with Severn towards the end of the film is a little muddled. These are very minor issues, and I mention them only to show that as a “first” effort it is really quite good, especially when we consider Bigelow’s willingness to embrace randomness, chance and coincidence as key narrative elements, and not just plot devices. This is taken up again in her 1989 action thriller Blue Steel. This film has also served to influence a number of other vampire films. The motel shootout is referenced in From Dusk ‘til Dawn (Robert Rodriguez, 1996) and the idea of putting vampires in a western setting has been taken up in a number of films, including John Carpenter’s delightfully mediocre Vampires (1998). But Near Dark also points to a number of themes for addressing Bigelow’s work, including the flexibility of genre, as shown in Point Break (1991) and Strange Days (1995), and an overwhelming interest in exploring the motivations of character, in films like K-19 (2002) and of course, The Hurt Locker (2009).
As a final note to Twilight fans, I say this: these vampires don’t sparkle.
Near Dark. Dir. Kathryn Bigelow. Near Dark Joint Venture, 1987 (film).