Monday, March 22, 2004

Cut Me, Please

On the recommendation of a friend I saw Jane Campion's In the Cut tonight. It affected me, but not the same way it did him. He is a smart guy, whose opinion about films I respect. Despite our sometimes vocal disagreements, I feel we more often share similar views, but this time I'm going to have to part ways. I wouldn't go so far as to say the film offended me (being offended is so easy), but it did irritate me enough to write it all down.

Only someone too young to have seen Looking For Mister Goodbar (or someone who had seen but forgotten it) could consider this stuff original. And to be clear: I am speaking here of the ideological and emotional landscape of the film, not its potboiler structure. Although it was clearly tagged with the social earmarks of its time (the advent of the ERA), Goodbar was at least an honest film. Its implication was simple: it's unfair being a woman because when you're a woman, A) although it's your right to do so, expressing your sexuality nonetheless makes you a target because you're physically weaker than the men around you, and B) those men will often take that expression as an invitation which cannot be revoked. It's unfair, the film says, even horrific, but it's also a biological fact of life which will not change no matter what rules we impose on our society.

In the Cut, on the other hand, is the kind of female power fantasy that was much more common when radical, academic feminism was getting its start (the outrageously myopic observations of Andrea Dworkin are the archetypal example). It belies a desperate search for some kind of power-equivalency with men, and is only able to find it in the (convenient, delusional) observation that all men are either sexually-attractive-but-anti-intellectual thugs (Mark Ruffalo), or neurotic milksops (Kevin Bacon). With such imperfect choices, what's a girl to do? Well, if men can't offer up a suitable candidate, at least some power can be found in the prerogative to choose or reject the imperfect options. And when that ability to choose is endangered (by the inevitable violence of men, of course), an equivalent power is found in the matter-of-fact observation that violence on the part of men makes them somehow inferior. The very presence of male violence in the film seems somehow intended to create a de facto pathos between the audience and Meg Ryan's character, elevating her (and by association, one assumes, her sex).

I gave Jane Campion credit as a filmmaker for creating The Piano, despite its having a similar power-fantasy at its heart (perhaps because it was less central to the story or muted by the Victorian setting), but here she shows herself to be much less original, if not intellectually bankrupt, by picking up the worn-out lookingglass of 80's-era academic feminism. The world-image it produces is filled with pathetic, unrealistic characterizations of men. Aside from the brutish lothario and neurotic pansy mentioned above, we're also given the crowd of leering, empty-eyed strip club patrons conveniently located downstairs from Jennifer Jason Leigh's apartment. Even the one intellectual man in the film, Ryan's student Cornelius (Sharrieff Pugh), is depicted as misguided (to say the least), as his attempts to intellectualize John Wayne Gacy produce in him sympathy ("he was a victim of desire") instead of the traditional revulsion. What Campion seems to be saying is that men's sympathies toward their own sexual desires are misplaced - that those desires are in fact destructive and evil. They are contrasted with women's sexual desires, which are shown to be transcendent, and only rarely achieved (because men are generally unable to fulfill them). The association of male sexual desire with the obsessions of John Wayne Gacy might strike the film's audience as patently sexist, if that audience hadn't been raised during the 70's and 80's on exactly the same kind of ridiculous observations.

Also irritating is the unending string of ungrounded visual references Campion throws into the mix. If I weren't so turned off by the idea of sitting through even one more frame of the film, I'd go back and count the number of insert shots there are of American flags. Is this supposed to be important? Does Campion feel she's saying something about American society with this tired genre piece? And what the hell is the significance of the incessant ice-skating flashbacks with Ryan's parents? Are they supposed to suggest that even the one perfectly-romanticized man in Ryan's life, her father, was in fact a physical danger to her mother? Campion seems to know the answer, but doesn't feel the need to share it. It's like watching a student film in which the "filmmaker" feels that being intentionally obscure lends an automatic cachet to his "art."

I'd like to say at least that the performances please, but Campion gets in the way there, too. While some have suggested she lets her actors work with each other to develop a verbal "shorthand," that easy way people have who have known each other for a long time, here it just strikes me as tedious acting-class bullshit, more exercise than narrative. Lingering scenes in which nothing happens (particularly those between Ryan and Leigh) do nothing to motivate the story Campion's telling, which in the end leaves them feeling artistically gratuitous. These empty scenes are even worse than the hackneyed police procedural which surrounds them, and that's saying something.

It is a peculiarity of the age we live in that men who make generalized, disparaging remarks about women are called sexist, or myopic, or evil, but women who make the same generalizations about men are called observant. Having grown up in such times, I am obliged to agree that Campion's film is very "observant."