This week I watched Bonnie and Clyde, starred by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. This film narrates, in a rather retrospective and nostalgic fashion, the dramatized story of Bonnie and Clyde, who were gangsters travelling through the Midwest in the 30s. Continue reading
This week I watched Taxi Driver directed by Martin Scorsese, a neo-noir movie that depicts the psychological predicament of a Vietnam War veteran named Travis. Set in the New York City of 1970s, this movie explores the conflict between a war hero who tries to stick to the older social norm of the era before his enrollment into the army and the new social landscape of America that took form in late the 1960s as a result of various social movements.
Travis, haunted by stress and insomnia, takes up the job as a nightshift “cabbie” to get himself busy. He is abhorred by the face that the city shows at night: “whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal” (Scorsese, Taxi Driver). Apparently, he is not highly valued by the society, despite his honor in the war. His customer humiliates him with goffered dollar bills, which he can choose to do nothing about but put it in his pocket. His attempts to accost women are met by refusal and hostility, which leaves pornographic movies as his only channel to find sexual consolation. He writes so in his diary: “
“All my life needed was…someplace to go…I believe that someone should become a person like other people” (Scorsese, Taxi Driver).
His loneliness and sense of exclusion is clearly spelled through this line. He wishes for recognition, both from the society and women, yet both deny him. He detests to see morality and order breaking down at night, yet he is, at the same time, entrenched in porn movies and pills.
A key character in the story is Betsy, a secretary working for the campaign of the president candidate Palatine. An angel to Travis’ fascination, she lacks the potential threat that Marilyn Monroe poses to males, but at the same time possesses beauty and innocence. Travis sees her through the french window in her office, when she is fussed around by Tom, another male colleague of her. This man wears an Afro hairstyle, walks around in bright-colored suit and banters in lame jokes, a contradiction to Travis’ virility and conciseness. To Travis, Betsy’s innocence is an escape from the degraded world he is in. He successfully gains Betsy’s attention and invites her to a film. However, Betsy is astonished and repelled by the pornographic content in the film, which Travis enjoys as an outlet of his desire. Predictably, Betsy breaks with Travis and no longer answers his call. At the end of one scene, Travis intrudes into Betsy’s office to question why she has stopped talking to him. Tom chases him away.
“Loneliness has followed me my whole life…There is no escape. I’m God’s lonely man” (Scorsese, Taxi Driver).
He turns to the black market to buy guns and starts planning vengeance on the society. His decision is to assassinate Palatine—–the politician Betsy works for—–someone he sees as an incarnation of corruption and hypocrisy. Not unexpectedly, this attempt fails.
This event brings Travis to his second fascination—–Iris. Iris works as a prostitute for a pimp called Sport. She once runs into Travis, but is then dragged away by a whoremaster. From Travis’ point of view, Iris is forced and trapped in this relationship, even though another scene shows Sport and Iris expressing deep affection towards each other. Travis undertakes a mission to rescue Iris—–take her home and send her to school—–even though she is content with her situation. He imagines himself as the heroic savior who now can prove his value and restore the older norm of the society.
His determination is put into action. He storms into brothel alone, shoots Sport right at his abdomen and proceeds to kill a gatekeeper and a client who has just finished with Iris. With a long interval in-between, the audience hears a thanks letter written by Iris’ parents to Travis in the next scene, which expresses their gratitude for returning Iris home. Travis is now acclaimed by the paper as a hero, but he continues his life as a cabbie. At the end, Betsy runs into him and expresses her regret, but he only replies, “So long” and drives his cab away (Scorsese, Taxi Driver).
Many critics find the last scene a fantasy in Travis’ dying moments (Ebert). In this consummated version of his life, he is elevated from the dirty sewage in New York and his virility is recognized. The ending is a milestone in film history, because while it temporarily raises up Travis as the hero, he resumes his low-profile life as a “nameless hero.” A typical plot development of older films, in which the male protagonist eventually comes together with the femme fatale, starts to give way to the characterization of a lonely hero. The male hero does not need a woman to cooperate with him, nor does he even need her in his private life. He tackles the problem by himself, while standing alone for the rest of the time. He is not particularly a misogynist or an aseuxal man, but partnership and relationship do not play a role in his life.
This prototype of a lonely and emotionless hero plays in later American films, including Rambo in First Blood, who happens to be a Vietnam veteran as well. It fulfills a masculine fantasy of hidden honor and recognition, when the society no longer recognizes a middle-class heterosexual male as the only exemplar of success.
Travis epitomizes the social exclusion and estrangement that the Vietnam War veterans found when they came back home after years in a strange place. America had become a new place, yet they still clutched to the older society in their memory. Travis could not understand why Iris would want to stay with Sport:
Travis: “That guy Sport is a killer.”
Iris “Sport never killed nobody… He is a Libra.”
“I’m a Libra too. That’s why we get along so well.”
Travis: “Looks like a killer to me” (Scorsese, Taxi Driver).
His action to kill the pimp and return Iris home is more of a desperate move to assert his value as a man and to bring the society “back on track”. In a way, this film records the collision between the old America and a new America, which in many respects is still happening today.
Ebert, Roger. “Taxi Driver Movie Review & Film Summary (1976) | Roger Ebert.”RogerEbert.com, 1 Jan. 2004, http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-taxi-driver-1976.
Scorsese, Martin, director. Taxi Driver. Amazon, Columbia Pictures, 1976, http://www.amazon.com/Taxi-Driver-Cybill-Shepherd/dp/B000I9U7C4.
Marilyn Monroe: Fissures and Rebellion Under Resurgent Norms in the 50s
A top-billing actress and sexual icon, Monroe was arguably the most influential American actress in the 50s. Her films and private life alike are still fervently discussed today by fans and researchers. Major social trends and changes in gender dynamics were all presented in the films she acted.
The 50s is often seen as an era of optimism in norms and resurgence of conservatism. American males, self-assuringly viewing themselves as the saviors of democracy, victoriously returned home, drove the women back home again and took charge themselves. Victory in the international arena and memory of the throes from the Great Recession generated a strong desire within them for a stable traditional family life. As Elaine Tyler May noted, the wartime independence of women gave way to “female subordination and domesticity” (Wandersee 499). However, this resurgence of idyllic middle-class values, as framed by a house, a family and children, enshrouded some more profound undercurrents that ultimately led to the feminist awakening in the 60s.
It is undisputed that many women were driven back to households again, yet many remained single or continued to work outside of the home long after marriage. In the household, the paterfamilia no longer dominated in the same manner. Instead, the new emphasis on sexual pleasure for both genders and sacrifice for the family (and economic success) on both sides created new fissures within the family.
Ray Cutler in Niagara, a florid, energetic and economically well-off personification of middle-class success, experiences this conflict between familial relationships and stress for success. The first belonging that we see he brings to his honeymoon with his wife is an importune book by Winston Churchill. Immediately upon his arrival, he calls the headquarters of his company to arrange a meeting with his boss —– while leaving his wife Polly in their cabin alone. When Polly is terrified by the “resurrected” George, the husband of Monroe in the film, Ray responds to a dining invitation by his boss as follows:
“Well, it, it’s out. The way you feel. The whole idea is silly…
Still, we have to eat somewhere. Uh, just a bite maybe” (Hathaway, Niagara).
These scenes reveal the fissures in the relationship between Ray and Polly and reflect those in American middle-class families in the 50s as a whole. The prosperous economy enabled many families to acquire material well-being, yet this often came at the cost of men’s neglect of family relationships. As Allan Carlson points out, this separation of job and family destabilized the family life in the 50s significantly (). In addition, May’s survey shows that a large number of women in the 50s were dissatisfied with their marriage life (Wandersee 498).
Another prevailing issue of the time is the intrusion of politics into private life. As the American government was increasingly threatened by the Communist expansion across the globe, its containment policy, originally designed to contain the expansion of Communist regime, applied to American families as well with a goal to stabilize the public. In Niagara, Monroe’s husband George suffers a serious post-war trauma as a veteran from the Korean War. His intention in participating in the war was to “prove his virility” to Monroe, yet this masculinity is wounded even more when he comes back. His occupation is reduced to building a model car as a psychiatric treatment to stabilize his psychological condition, which is scoffed at by Monroe for its triviality (Schleiler 51). This weakened position of George makes him passive to Monroe, who deliberately insults him with two tickets she and her lover have used. This inverse in power, as opposed to Dietrich’s deviation, was more prevalent in the 50s than in the 30s. Even though many women were drive back home and men resumed their domination, yet this relationship no longer remained the same. Men came home, desperately trying to exert their virility, yet the women were no longer willing to submit.
Monroe’s characterization in this film, as befitting the formula of the film noir, resembles more closely the “femme fatale” prototype. Only this time, this femme fatale is an American within a family. Monroe’s image, presented as pretentious, deceitful and dishonorable, exposes the then contemporary anxiety of American males. Even though several initial close-ups of her make us recall her stereotypical image as the “dumb blonde,” we soon find out that she outwits her husband while carrying on her romantic affairs. Her presence in the family, as her husband George recalls, ruins his business and ultimately his life. However, at the same time, he feels deeply attached to her, which reveals the dilemma that American men in the 50s faced. The film presents her wit as a destructive force to the relationship, which leads to George’s and eventually her own demise. Meanwhile, Ray’s wife Polly, a traditional conforming woman, is saved from a critical situation by George, who in an act of redemption sacrifices himself to save her. This highly symbolic contrast is very likely a representation of American men’s longing for returning to the old gender norm.
On the other hand, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, despite being a musical comedy, reveals another aspect that impacted the gender relationship during this era —– consumerism and individualism. A important line repeatedly sang by Monroe in this musical film goes as:
“A kiss on the hand might be the Continental.
But Diamonds are a girl’s best friends” (Hawks, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes).
Meanwhile in another scene, Dorothy, Monroe’s friend in the movie, sings a number about her desire for a romantic affair in a gym with dozens of Olympic athletes. Even though Monroe’s longing for wealth contrasts sharply with Dorothy’s emphasis on personality, and their obsession do have an ironical tone against that era, this story is presented entirely from the female perspective. It should be admitted that the musical numbers, in which Monroe dances and sings seductively, were made to appeal to male audiences. However, the plot line favors the women’s choice, ending in a romantic consummation, in which both of the girls marry the ones they have pursued. The girls actively engaged in relationships with the men they had a crush on. Monroe prefers money, and Dorothy prefers handsomeness, yet it is they themselves who makes the choice as to which type of men they would like to pursue. They are no longer the passive receivers, but active agents who have control over their own relationships.
The prevailing consumerism and rising individualism in this era, despite being criticized for complicating family relationship, did give females a chance to work in the city and pursue an alternative path of relationships.
It is noteworthy that the resurgence of norms in this era mainly comes in the form of family life, which is supported both by the socio-economic environment and by the government deliberately. Yet under this surface, many complex undercurrents, both on the side of men and women, were flowing that ultimately led to the greater changes in the 60s.
Christensen, Bryce J. “Two and a Half Cheers for the 1950s! Rediscovering the Virtues of a Maligned Decade.” The Natural Family, familyinamerica.org/journals/summer-2012/two-and-half-cheers-1950s-rediscovering-virtues-maligned-decade/#.WsaISNPOXzI.
Hawks, Howard, director. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Amazon, 20th Century Fox, 1953, http://www.amazon.com/Gentlemen-Prefer-Blondes-Jane-Russell/dp/B004FWRLMY/ref=tmm_aiv_swatch_1?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=.
Hathaway, Henry, director. Niagara. Amazon, 20th Century Fox, http://www.amazon.com/Niagara-Colorized-Marilyn-Monroe/dp/B004GV0GQC/ref=tmm_aiv_swatch_1?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=.
Schleier, Merrill. “Fatal Attractions: ‘Place,” the Korean War, and Gender in ‘Niagara.’” Cinema Journal, vol. 51, no. 4, 2012, pp. 26–43. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23253575.
Wandersee, Winifred D. “History of Education Quarterly.” History of Education Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 3, 1989, pp. 498–500. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/368925.
Reflection and Plan
For the last quarter, I have looked at the gender dynamics that various American films from the 20s to the 50s exhibit through individual film studies and reading. In particular, I have looked at various films by Ingrid Bergman, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Lauren Bacall and Marilyn Monroe. My analysis includes both how their films reflect the gender norm of the American societies in that era and how they might have demonstrated gender nonconformity through their acting. So far, I think I have done a good job analyzing and deconstructing the films in an academic way. Now I have a good idea about what gender norms were in place in the American society from the 20s to the 50s.
In this semester, I will spend about two more weeks with American films, focusing on films from the 60s to the 80s. Starting from there, I will shift to analyzing Chinese films from the same era, especially the 40s, 60s and 90s, as a comparison and contrast with the American films. Some of the Chinese films that I will look at include New Women (1935), To Live (set in from the 60s to the 90s) and Farewell, My Concubine (1993).
My final goal will be to produce an essay about how certain films reflect important trends in the gender norms of the American and Chinese society in a given time period. I will select a certain time period (80s and 90s preferably) and use the knowledge I have accumulated throughout the semester to write this essay. The focus will be to show a sense of continuity as in how the gender norm in the films from this recent time period is an accumulation of those in the past decades and how it leads up to the gender norms we have in today’s society. It will show that gender norms, rather than a human instinct, are products of various artificial cultural trends that are subjects to change.
For the most part, my original schedule has worked well. The only adjustment that I need to make is to focus more on Chinese films from the time periods relevant to my final essay (a little bit of 40s and focus on 60s and 90s) so that I will have enough materials to finish my essay.
“Farewell My Concubine (1993).” Letterbox, letterboxd.com/film/farewell-my-concubine/.
“New Women.” Alchetron.com, alchetron.com/New-Women.
In this week, I plunged from the 30s into the tumultuous 40s characterized by the social changes brought by WWII. In my first blog about Casablanca, I analyzed the American GI’s version of the war and their encounter with European femmes fatales. This time, I decided to take one step further and examine how To Have and To Have Not with Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart reflected the changing gender dynamic between American males on the frontline and females on the home front. Continue reading
This week I explored the role of Greta Garbo in the history of American cinema as an actress. Same as Marlene Dietrich, she moved to Hollywood from Europe during the early stage of her career and starred in a number of Hollywood films. There she made a fame for herself and became an iconic figure for American films in the 1930s. In this blog, I will study several distinguishing characteristics in terms of gender and sexuality in her acting through Queen Christina (1933) and Camille (1936) and compare her against Marlene Dietrich. Queen Christina is a dramatized adaption of the namesake historical figure, in which Christina, the queen of Sweden, gives up her throne for her doomed love for Antonio, an envoy from Spain. Camille, a screen adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame aux Camelias, features the emotional struggle of Marguerite Gautier, a courtesan in Paris, between the rich Baron de Varville and her true love, the young Almond.
One noticeable aspect of Garbo’s early life was her acquaintance with Marlene Dietrich and their co-starring in The Joyless Street (1925). Even though neither of them has ever publicly acknowledged their acquaintance, the author of The Girls have successfully identified a scene in this film, where in a queue in front of a butcher shop Garbo fell into Dietrich’s arms out of weakness, which suggested at least a likelihood of their early friendship and perhaps intimacy. Even if we leave aside their connection, we can still reasonably infer that the initial stage of Garbo’s starring career in Weimar Germany in the 20s has influenced her persona with its sexual disobedience (McLellan 61-62).
Perhaps under this influence, Garbo shares a commonality with Dietrich — androgyny, though played in a distinct fashion. This trait of her could not be made clearer in Queen Christina, where she plays a powerful dominatrix role of a queen who was “brought up like a boy” (Cukor, Queen Christina). She stands at the top of the social pyramid, where every male bows to her in her presence. In the first half of the film, we see a completely masculine figure deprived of feminine quality. She gives out orders in a hoarse voice, sits in a manly majestic fashion and stamps the table with her fist to express her discontent. She poses a sharp contrast with her sister Ebba, whose interest lies in sleighing while hers are in “ambassadors, treaties, councils” (Cukor, Queen Christina). Dressing herself in male attire, she is often mistakenly taken as a boy, including first by her “homme fatale” Antonio. She even denies her own femininity in a famous line: “I have no intention to (die an old maid), chancellor. I shall die a bachelor” (Cukor, Queen Christina). Yet she contradicts her own words when she meets the Spanish ambassador Antonio, where her masculinity melts down and is replaced by tender actions and soft words. In a famous scene featuring her and Antonio, she tenderly caresses and kisses the bed sheet, the pictures on the wall and even the column of the room. Turning her head and looking into Antonio’s eyes, she softly murmurs, “I have been memorizing this room” (Cukor, Queen Christina). Meanwhile Antonio, with a pair of amorous flames in his eyes, replies, “I’ll show you the whole living world” (Cukor, Queen Christina). All sentiments burst out from Christina at this moment and filled her with tender joy, revealing the feminine side of her persona. This complete reversal in sexual expression is a signature of Garbo’s performance in this film, which Dietrich plays with in Shanghai Express as well (see my last blog for more elaboration).
Christina and Antonio in Queen Christina
Marguerite and Almond in the ending of Camille
The relationship between Christina and Antonio also draws out another similarity between Garbo and Dietrich — their independence in sexuality and challenge to patriarchal values. In Queen Christina, Garbo is pressured to engage with Prince Charles, a traditional male hero with no outstanding character but his might in the battlefield and stoic virtues. Her eminence in politics obviously does not rid her of the patriarchal oppression that other women faces, as she is burdened with the task to “give Sweden an heir” (Cukor, Queen Christina). Her ultimate response is to abdicate from her throne and pursue her love as a woman, getting rid of the patriarchal system altogether. She proclaims her heart, “There is a voice in our souls, which tells us what to do, and we obey” (Cukor, Queen Christina). Her disregard for the traditional values of sexuality and patriarchal power is more evident in Camille. In this film, she dismisses her friends’ suggestion for her to approach the rich Baron de Varville, but advances to pursue Almond instead, a young man with no power or wealth. Marlene Dietrich also shows her disregard for patriarchal power in Morocco, where she defies the wealthy La Bessiere and follows her true lover Tom Brown, as well as the Scarlet Empress, where she pursues to wield the power herself and becomes Catherine the Great.
The similarity between Garbo and Dietrich ends, however, at where their differences in regards to males start. Even though Garbo does portray a sexually independent and sometimes sexually fluid female in a number of films, she fails to cross the border of a “homme fatale”. At the end, she struggles against the patriarchal system only to fall into the embrace of another man, rather than her independence itself. The ending of both Queen Christina and Camille betrays this aspect of her acting and perhap personna. In Queen Christina’s final close-ups, Christina holds the dying Antonio in her arms, gazing painfully yet affectionately into his eyes, full of tenderness and sorrow. Antonio says, “When the wind is with us, we sail, Spain” (Cukor, Queen Christina). In preceding scenes, Christina once says she wishes to “get away, to be free” (Cukor, Queen Christina). Yet it does seem from the ending that the freedom she pursues is a rather traditional relationship with Antonio. In fact, the entire momentum that compels her to dismantle the her patriarchal constraints come from the presence of Antonio, without whom the story does not stand. Similarly, in Camille’s ending, Marguerite dies in the arms of Almond, smiling radiantly at her lover who now has returned to her side. By their bedside, Marguerite’s nanny sheds tears at this supposedly moving scene. The ending of Garbo’s characters return to a banal heterosexual narrative of traditional roman stories, where the prince and princess can eventually be with each other for the rest of their life.
In most of Dietrich’s films, however, her characters would still retain their charms even if the males were not present in the plots. Even though some of her larger productions contain a similar heterosexual thread, that thread remains a thread throughout the stories and never threaten to overshadow Dietrich herself. In Shanghai Express, for instance, the reflamed passion between Shanghai Lily (Dietrich) and Doc is a central thread running through the story, yet it does not with other threads at the same time. Besides Doc, the characters of Shanghai Lily’s companions Wong, whose obscurely lesbianistic relationship with Shanghai Lily demonstrates her bisexual side, as well as the French military and rebel leader, whose interactions with Shanghai Lily elicits a more masculine side of her personality, are all integral to Shanghai Lily’s character building and the story as a whole. We have a far more complex image of Dietrich in Shanghai Express, for whom heterosexual charm is only one of the many facets of her existence.
Despite the limited time of my study, I have come to several conclusions about Garbo and the American cinema in the 30s. Same as Dietrich, she has a sexually disobedient persona and plays a number of impressive sexually disobedient roles on the screen. Also, she played with a number of bisexual elements in some of her films, as Dietrich did. Yet the existence of a homme fatale, not only in Garbo’s films but in many Dietrich’s Hollywood productions as well, dimed their spirits of free sexual expression. Despite their impressive performances of their sexuality, their characters mostly return to the embrace of a male protagonist at the end of the film. It is my inference that their films were such a huge hit because Dietrich and Garbo carried the audience through an unimaginable adventure of non-traditional sexual expression, yet the social norm of heterosexual gender roles and mounting conservatism in Hollywood forced their characters to return to the norm at the end, so that the audience might leave satisfied after an adventure yet content about their values at the same time
Cukor, George. “Camille.” Amazon.com: Camille: Greta Garbo, Robert Taylor (I), Lionel Barrymore, Henry Daniell: Amazon Digital Services LLC, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, http://www.amazon.com/Camille-Greta-Garbo/dp/B001O4XLZC.
Mamoulian, Rouben. “Queen Christina.” YouTube, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 31 Aug. 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFItnf3hIDg.
McLellan, Diana. The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood. St. Martin’s Press, 2000.]
“Queen Christina.” JustWatch, http://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/queen-christina.
Ruby. “Camille.” Garbo Forever, http://www.garboforever.com/Film-31.htm.
Last week, I examined The Blue Angel and Morocco starred by Marlene Dietrich and the element of “gender rebellion” against traditional values in these films. After discussing with my mentor T. Pat, I decided to look at the more profound cultural trend that she both represented and influenced and examine the film Shanghai Express through this lens. Continue reading
Following the study of Casablanca as a sample of classical movie with a traditional gender dynamic, I have started to look at gender non-conformist movies in the liberal Pre-Code (Hays Code) era. The first actress on my list is Marlene Dietrich. Continue reading
Ever since it was invented, film has always been a major source of influence that shapes the public’s image towards others and themselves. In particular, the gender norm in our society was, to a large extent, shaped by the popular films that defined each era. This is why I decided to pursue the study of this topic —– the gender dynamic in classic films and its influence on our society.