May 19, 2012

Girls on Film: Auterism and hotties


The first of my film posts for The Guardian:—
Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows may have received a kicking from critics, but one person has emerged from the dust-up unscathed: Eva Green, the French actress who plays the evil witch Angelique Bouchard. With her red-lacquered lips, her crazy-beautiful eyes and possessed-marionette limbs, Green’s lolling vamp represents the perfection of a type Burton has long been trying to get right —  from Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman in Batman Returns, to Lisa Marie Smith bosomy Martian in Mars Attack, to Anne Hathaway’s White Queen in Alice in Wonderland. Critics may be wearying tired of the rest of Burton’s directorial signatures — the ornate production designs, the seventies kitsch, the collaboration with Depp — but he’s finally perfected his vamps: peroxide-blonde, big-chested, cinch-waisted, eyes like Bambi’s.  
All film directors have their types. Everyone knows Steven Spielberg for his suburban settings, alien visitations, and Godlike shafts of light but equally consistent is his taste for hot moms, in long t-shirts, cut-off jeans and morning-sexy hair: Teri Garr and Mellinda Dillon in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, JoBeth Williams in Poltergeist, and Dee Wallace in E.T. (dressed as Catwoman for Haloween, she even sends E.T, into a swoon).  Scorsese scholars find rich pickings in the director’s Catholism, his taste for violence, his bruisers, misfits and loners, but less so the women in orbit around them, whether sexily-damaged like Rosanna Arquette in After Hours and Illeana Douglas in Cape Fear, or spitfires like Lorraine Bracco in Goodfellas and Sharon Stone in Casino, giving as good as they get. 
 To which we could add Tarantino’s foot fetish (“he gave her a foot massage!”), Fellini’s breast-love, the lifelong connoisseurship Michaelangelo Antonioni brought to women’s legs, David Lynch’s thing for misapplied lip-stick, Darren Aronofsky’s taste for brainy brunettes and David Fincher’s love of skinny Goth girls viewed from the rear. As New York film critic David Edelstein to concluded, recently, “Fincher is an undies-and-butt man.” You could be forgiven for concluding that the most enduring definition of an auteur is a filmmaker who populates his movies with women he wants to boff.  
The big guns of auteur theory are strangely silent on the matter. In his seminal essay Notes on Auteur Theory in 1962, the influential American critic Andrew Sarris determined that auteur status was conferred by meeting the following benchmarks:  technical competence, personal style and something called “interior meaning” which he variously defined as a director’s “ vision of the world” his “attitude to life” and “elan of the soul.” He said nothing about sexual pecadilloes. Even though the two film directors hoisted highest by the French and touted as auteurist poster boys — Howards Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock — are famous for their taste in women, bequeathing us, respectively, the Hawksian woman and the Hitchcock Blonde.  
In his groundbreaking 1953 Cahiers du cinema essay, ‘The Genius of Howard Hawks,’ Jacques Rivette identified Hawks as “a bundle of dark forces and strange fascinations” — his  “obsession with continuity”, his “obsession with primitivism” and "bouts of ordered madness which give birth to an infinite chain of consequences" — but passed over his equally fervid obsession with insolent, self-possessed foxes, lounging against doorways in tailored suits like Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not (“You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and ... blow.")  Likewise, in their landmark study, Hitchcock: The First 44 Films,   Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol identified the “Hitchcock touch” through all the Catholic motifs in his work — original sin, guilt, martyrdom, crucifixion and so on — but had little to say about his lifelong worship at the altar of cool blondes with perfect manners and a nice line in double-entendres, as epitomized by Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief (“Do you want breast or leg?”), though Truffuat touched on the subject in his book of interviews with the director. 
 It’s a puzzle. French men are not known for their immunity to the charms of women. On the other hand, there’s always been a strong hint of chauvinism to auteur theorists. The carving up of the movies, a collaborative medium, into a series of solo acts, each bearing the unmistakeable imprint of an all-controlling “master,” most often male, is basically the Great Man Theory of history transplanted into movie theatres — the big swinging dick of film theories. Which is maybe why auterism, as conceived by the French in the 1960s and imported into America in the 1970s, has largely been the hobby-horse of young men in their twenties. Control is a young man’s sport. "There are no good and bad movies, only good and bad directors,” said Truffaut, at 21, believing that a real man’s signature comes through regardless, like musk or sweat.  Jacques Rivette, at age 25, found Hawks world to be “exclusively male” and dissed Marilyn Monroe as “that monster of femininity.” 
 So what about the women? The recent complaints from the Croissette about the lack of women directors at Cannes   — a “great pity” according to jury member Andrea Arnold — should not obscure the significant advances women have made in turning the cameras on men.  Kathryn Bigelow’s onscreen testosterone experiments have taken her from the young bucks of Point Break —  “young dumb and full of come” — to the more pathological daredevilry of Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker. Sofia Coppola has showcased her rapport with father figures (guess who) in Lost In Translation, and sleek young blades like Stephen Dorff in Somewhere. But the Female Gaze Award for Male Objectification surely has to go to Jane Campion, who got full frontal nude scenes from Mark Ruffalo in In The Cut and Havey Keitel in The Piano. 
He feigns the active while (re)presenting the passive posture,” writes Missouri professor Jaime Bihlmeyer of Keitel’s nudity in his 2003 academic paper The Female Gaze, the Speculum and the Chora within the H(y)st(e)rical Film. Citing Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva’s work on phallocentrism, Bihlmeyer concludes that by stripping for the camera, Keitel “appropriates a state of ambiguity” and becomes “unstuck from the linearity of the Law of the Father in this display of Other than subjectivity."  
Or, as Ruffalo tells Meg Ryan in In The Cut, "some women have no sense of the cock". Perhaps there’s our definition: you haven’t really qualified as an auteur until an American film scholar has used French psychoanalytic theory to render your ouevre as impregnable as Jean Baudrillard’s left nut.

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