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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Falling Asleep After Hitting the Snooze: 20 Years After Thelma and Louise

A retrospective look at Thelma and Louise, 20 years later, could probably go in one of two directions, maybe both to the film’s detriment. Some may see that its discontents no longer apply to a more progressive society, and others may see it as a tragedy, where the promise of more interesting female characters has gone the route of the mainstream hit that preceded it, Pretty Woman. In both cases, it would seem that Thelma and Louise becomes insignificant. One of the demographics least interested in it is, after all, women. And whether female moviegoers are more drawn to whatever America’s Sweetheart romantic comedy, or the estrogenic “classics” (Steel Magnolias), it’s a little discouraging. In a recent article for The New York Times, Carina Chocano laments how dated Thelma and Louise feels when compared to the vanguard of woman-driven entertainments, like Sex and the City. Pretty Woman, Chocano says, turned out to be the future – and it’s not even a love story, but a “money story.” Meanwhile, in his Village Voice review of the type of film women flock to, Nancy Meyers’ It’s Complicated, Scott Foundas lays out a bitter truism in describing Meryl Streep’s character, which could similarly apply to the “sweethearts” ranging from whatever Katherine Heigl or Jennifer Aniston vehicle to the Sex and the City ensamble: “She is…a highly strung, self-pitying, sex-starved nag defined expressly by the men in (or out of) her life, despite her resolve to be an independent woman.”

I’m not necessarily laying this out as an indication of cultural entropy. After all, I could be writing about how Sarah Palin’s “Reload” cult of male fantasy female homebodies have hijacked and misinterpreted Thelma and Louise for their own ends, but thankfully that has not happened. Thelma and Louise left too much of a sour taste in the right wing’s mouth just before Bill Clinton’s election, and was relegated by Rush Limbaugh to a host of “feminazi” punching bags that included Lorena Bobbitt and Anita Hill, and would soon be joined by Hillary Clinton. But that political dimension alone is cause for wonderment when one looks back in the archives of the early 1990s, and realizes how potent a film could be in triggering a national discussion. For Chocano, Thelma and Louise was like the Berlin Wall falling down, and if we’re going to look at a Time magazine cover story from that summer of 1991, or a big Newsweek spread, we’ll see how some assured utterances just never came to fruition: this movie would change woman film roles forever. In ten years, cinema would have a whole new geography.

How strange history – and the history of cinema -- is then, as not much at all seems to have changed. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, but global capitalism has not proven to be a tool of salvation, so much as an eraser of culture and idiosyncrasy, governed by money instead of people. That same year, Spike Lee’s masterpiece Do the Right Thing (maybe the one film that was even more provocative than Thelma and Louise in sparking a long-running national debate), led to important reflections of race. Soon later, there was John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood and Lee’s epic Malcolm X, both eerily released in conjunction with the Rodney King trial and subsequent Los Angeles riots. But like with gay cinema in the same period (Philadelphia in 1993, or Angels in America on stage), if something has changed 20 years on, it still feels like certainly not enough has. Ask Oliver Stone, whose Vietnam requiems were released during these years, his JFK standing alongside Thelma and Louise as one of 1991’s most important artifacts – not just cinematic, but cultural. Jim Garrison’s plea for activism at the end of the film, as Kevin Costner looks at us during his trial summation, was Stone’s idealism. But it appears like we’re collectively lazier now. The Social Network was a great zeitgeist film last year, and pictures like Avatar, Inception, and The Tree of Life sharply divide moviegoers wondering about the future of the cinema art. But when I research the wide-ranging attention given to Thelma and Louise, JFK, Do the Right Thing, etc, we’re a much less engrossed society. Films are films, and the provocative films are increasingly relegated to specialty houses where they cannot touch any larger cultural currents. Indeed, The Social Network should have been on magazine covers like Time, Newsweek, The New Republic, The Atlantic, etc. But it remained neatly segregated to the entertainment section, away from the cultural pages.

The promise of a progressive cultural and cinematic marriage, that old Marxist dream, and how it only puttered out like a stale balloon, is maybe the stuff of an ambitious book-length discussion trying to unravel the soul of an age. And being that I’m not smart enough for that, or at least have the leisure just yet, I’ll mercifully drop the issue and return to Thelma and Louise. I don’t know if the film itself is so dated. It represents the kind of mature filmmaking, perfectly amalgamating the comic with the melodramatic while being peppered with action, and so is then something to be missed. Forget about woman pictures; studios don't release summer films like Thelma and Louise anymore. As an original screenplay written by Callie Khouri (who won an Academy Award for it) and directed by Ridley Scott, who was then known as a highly visual filmmaker working in either fantasy (Alien; Blade Runner; Legend) or glossy noir (the undervalued Someone to Watch Over Me; Black Rain), it is structurally a marvel and touchstone, perhaps a perfect movie. The pleasures it affords as entertainment do not require that the audience necessarily gets entangled in gender politics, and neither Scott nor Khouri knew that they were making a film which would become so topical. The filmmakers present two strong central characters who both change over the course of two hours, complemented by a host of supporting males, no two of which are the same, each exhibiting different masculine characteristics. The picture does not sell itself out, and is so emotionally engaging in its theme of friendship and longing for freedom that its “sad” ending, where Thelma and Louise refuse to succumb to the fast-enclosing system of law and drive off a cliff, is more rousing in its glory than melancholy in defeat. Much has been made of the similarities between this ending and that of George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where the characters transcend their deaths to the extent that we cannot see them die. They are elevated to the tranquil paradise of an audience’s identifying consciousness, which salvages them from faceless systematic oppression.

This is one of the reasons Thelma and Louise is a picture that has never been relegated strictly to being a “woman’s picture” – men love it too, as Freedom and Friendship are two themes that anyone can identify with. One of Khouri’s most playful scenes shows how this is a film much more fed up with governing institutions generally than with "men" (though we can certainly talk about how that system is “patriarchal”). The poor cop locked in his trunk by Thelma and Louise is begging for help as a Rastafarian bicyclist comes by, smoking a doobie. Instead of following the officer’s directions to get the trunk key, the bicyclist exhales his smoke into the bullet holes fashioned by Thelma’s gun. It’s a cute incident of private revolt aimed against the ruling dictates that may find affinities with both blacks and leisurely pot smokers. It’s both charming and cathartic as an affront to those old time governing absurdities. And just as female roles in Hollywood haven’t necessarily improved since 1991, marijuana’s continual illegality is also cause of head-slapping incomprehension.

The theme of freedom is intrinsic to the Road Movie, a genre deeply embedded in America and its concept of the unexplored frontier. Thelma and Louise’s precedents are not solely Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing or Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, but also Huck and Jim in Mark Twain, on a river doubling for the road. These are characters in flight from constraints on their freedom, something subsequently grasped in The Grapes of Wrath and On the Road. “The road is life,” Kerouac repeats often, and the road story functions as the individual’s journey, necessarily associated with a fugitive flight from a cold system. The “road movie” melded well into the New Hollywood of the late 1960s, where filmmakers were also going on the road with smaller equipment, in Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands, and Thieves Like Us, and then having significant feminist connotations in Coppola’s The Rain People and Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. All of these Road Story characters are looking for purpose, control, and meaning, but never can hold on to it. They’re only in control with each passing moment. There is no safety net, as Fate, usually in the Law’s guise, looms.

The men in Thelma and Louise are the pursuing agents of control. Thelma’s pompous “regional manager” husband Darryl (Christopher McDonald) doesn’t give her the slightest respect or gratitude, but he also won’t allow her to leave the house. Louise’s boyfriend Jimmy (Michael Madsen) is far more sympathetic, but he still demands her devotion when he is unwilling to commit to their relationship. The male character that operates in turning the plot over is Harlan (Timothy Carhart), a honky tonk prowler and rapist, who tries to seduce Thelma, and then reacts brutally when she will not comply. The men here are demanding subservience, while offering nothing of meaning in return: Darryl is probably a philanderer; Jimmy is uncommitted, and only proposes when Louise is leaving him; and Harlan admits that he’s married, just before he attempts to rape Thelma.

For these men, women are objects – and not necessarily erotic. For Darryl and Jimmy, it’s more important that the women just be there in their place instead of being used as a sexual outlet. Similarly, women have always been necessary token elements to Hollywood films, in service to the development of male characters: they fill in their role. Callie Khouri very much admired how Raiders of the Lost Ark used Karen Allen as a strong female character in an action picture, but was depressed – and perhaps so inspired – by the sequel, Temple of Doom, where Allen is replaced by Kate Capshaw’s irritating starlet, more worried about her nails than human lives.

Thelma and Louise, as played by Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, altered that. They assumed their independence, defiantly affirmed a friendship, and even sexualized men, as Thelma does to the young drifter, J.D. (Brad Pitt). “He’s got a cute butt,” she remarks. “Darryl doesn’t have a cute butt.” Eventually the two have a randy session of lovemaking, which some feminists found offensive: a woman so near rape just days before would not be so willing to engage in a sex act with this dreamy stranger; or, the sequence just goes to show that all a woman needs is a good lay. Such protests are the ground of puritanical academic theorists, as the same kind of eroticism, it could be argued, plays into the central thrust (no pun intended) of Jane Campion’s The Piano a couple of years later, where Harvey Keitel is at first the gazer, and then becomes the gazed, of Holly Hunter’s mute pianist.

J.D. continues the long streak of men who screw over Thelma and Louise, however, stealing their cash. But his pillow talk with Thelma also becomes a tutorial on their next unlawful stint, when Thelma borrows his routine in robbing a liquor store. This is maybe another point of contention with Thelma and Louise, and the question of why women still value the Steel Magnolias of the world over it. Are these women, or just women assuming “patriarchal” identities? Again, this is the terrain of the academics. Thelma and Louise is a movie with a big heart, so big that even its most cartoonish character, Christopher McDonald’s Darryl, is allotted a private moment at the end, Scott’s camera zooming in on him, as he may be finally grasping what it is that he’s taken for granted and lost. Few films have so many fully realized characters.

It’s not a secret that men are a little dubious of their ladies’ freedom, and perhaps even more afraid of their ability to experience sexual pleasure. Geena Davis is not only coming into her own and asserting herself in Thelma, but what may have really aggravated a lot of people is that she is enjoying herself so much while doing it. She goes from a naive girl, protected by the maternal Louise, to assuming the commanding role in their relationship. This journey has woken her up, and she mentions to Louise how she's "never felt so awake." Some people thought Thelma and Louise would spark a kind of feminist revolt, and this arrives at the misreading of it as a “revenge film,” where the object of vengeance is the whole male gender.

It’s not a revenge film. Three people die in Thelma and Louise, two of them being the title characters (and the third being a rapist). Look at the pivotal early scene, where Louise puts a revolver on Harlan, saving her friend, and with heated eyes tells him, “The next time you hear a woman crying like that, she ain’t having any fun! Susan Sarandon’s intensity illuminates a hidden past for her character, where she too was likely victimized (in Texas, it is inferred). But she’s not interested in exacting her wrath, as a victim who sees her own rapist in every other assaulting male. She wants him to understand how she feels. As they walk away, Harlan scoffs, “Bitch. I should’ve gone ahead and fucked her.” “What did you say?” Louise gasps, losing control. “I said suck my cock.” There is no dialogue – only sexual aggression (the kind of which, if we take Harlan’s figure of speech literally, silences a woman's capacity for speech). Sarandon’s reaction here is tremendous, because this is not the typical masculine heroics of so many cathartic revenge fantasies. The way she approaches Harlan is like she was just going to slap him -- except she has a gun in her hand. Harlan’s dead, and Louise realizes that everything has changed.

Near the end of their journey, there are a couple more instances of Thelma and Louise exacting their own kind of justice, but it is hardly the grotesque kind of bloodlust (often condemned as fascism) seen in Death Wish or Dirty Harry. The aforementioned state trooper is brought to tears by the women, who pleads to them, speaking about his wife and kids. “Well, you be sweet to them, especially your wife,” Thelma says. “My husband wasn’t sweet to me, look how I turned out.” But they don’t kill him (and they do, after all, give him some good advice). Of more interest in when the women pull over to confront the harassing trucker they’ve seen on the road. The incident is a parody of Harlan’s killing, as Thelma and Louise first ask him, as if really wanting to know, “Where do you behaving like that with women you don’t even know? How’d you feel if someone did that to your mother, or your sister? Or your wife?” The trucker doesn’t engage in the dialogue. “You women are crazy!” “We think you should apologize.” “I ain’t apologizing for shit!” “You say you’re sorry,” Louise repeats. Fuck that!” the trucker bellows, turning around. The guns come out, but the trucker still will not apologize. So they open fire on his tanker (which some critics believe is a gigantic phallic symbol). Thelma and Louise are then terrorists of the most benign sort (assuming we hold human life higher than oil trucks), fighting against silence, or the silence of “suck my dick.”

The picture’s key antagonist is also the most empathetic male figure, the cop on their trail, Hal (Harvey Keitel). Hal is the only character able to see beyond the frigid systematic bottom-line of both his profession and patriarchy: the women need someone to listen to them, but in this world it’s improbable. In his first scene, interviewing a waitress at the scene of Harlan's corpse, Hal is listening. He is the rare receptive male in the world of the film, seeking to understand other people, and, if convenient, exacting his own small chastisements on Thelma and Louise’s victimizers (such as J.D.). Even though he may have trouble holding onto his Southern accent for the duration of the picture, it’s wonderful to watch Keitel work as this authentically paternal individual, working against his own actor persona (that same year, Keitel played the thug Mickey Cohen in Bugsy, and some of his most memorable roles were as men very unsympathetic to women, for example in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore – where he plays a filmic ancestor to Harlan – and as the pimp Sport in Taxi Driver). For me, Keitel is director Scott’s own alter ego, a male force strangely fascinated and engaged with strong women (he gave us Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien), and like Scott, he’s unable to save Thelma and Louise while nevertheless pursuing them to the very end.

An honest look at Thelma and Louise makes its controversy seem much ado about nothing, its notions of freedom being very basic and valuable to any viewer. But it was released amidst a perfect storm of sociopolitical interest, alongside events like the Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill hearings, the trial of William Kennedy Smith, and shortly before John Wayne Bobbitt lost his wittle Bobbitt. Vocal feminists were perceived as castrating threats (again from the Limbaugh Lexicon in his 1991 book, The Way Things Ought to Be, "Feminazi"), actress Susan Sarandon herself carrying her own political contextualization that irked a lot of conservative commentators. There’s even the irony of how Ridley Scott’s Academy Award nomination possibly came at the expense of Barbara Streisand’s snubbing (for the much inferior, though more agreeable, The Prince of Tides, nominated for Best Picture while Thelma and Louise was not). Watching it and thinking about it, Thelma and Louise stirs nostalgia. Nowadays, the female “revolt” is degraded to the sexualized American Apparel porn fantasy of Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, or tucked neatly away at an art-house for a couple weeks, as with Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, a socially conscious agitprop masterpiece that puts Thelma and Louise’s journey through a neorealist prism, and surpasses its predecessor in the process. If it’s not saddening from the standpoint of activism that Thelma and Louise didn’t quite have more worthy mainstream progeny, it’s terribly dismal that, from a filmgoer’s perspective, it’s not possible anymore that similar films may define the summer season, or inject startling intensity and dialectical interest in how what we see projected on a screen is also a projection of, and reaction to, the world outside the theater. We’re left with comic book franchises and sometimes appropriated taglines, such as last week when John Boehener screened Ben Affleck’s The Town for Republican congressmen, in an effort to unite them on a debt-limit plan, or something (I don’t get it either). But Thelma and Louise, which may unfortunately be doomed to a pop-culture footnote, is a genuine reminder that movies can matter as much as they can entertain.

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