I went to the movies today – tough life, but someone has to do it (actually I stayed in and watched videos). I had been thinking about Laura Mulvey’s text – written about here – about the place of women in the cinema, and I think because of the resonance of Mulvey and Mulray that I thought about Polanski’s classic take on film noire ‘Chinatown’. Before watching that I had thought about another film from around the same era and decided on Bob Rafealson’s ‘Five Easy Pieces’. The former being made in 1974 and the latter in 1970 and both being made around the time that the feminist movement was, maybe, at it’s height, where the rhetoric surrounding the role of women in society was perhaps at it’s loudest.
These are films that I’ve enjoyed for a long time, that they both have Jack Nicholson in I thought provided a connect between them, both characters on the fringes of society, neither married or in a long term relationship and both characters with sexual relationships which provide pivotal points in the narrative of the films.
Five Easy Pieces starts with a shot of Jack Nicholson (Bobby) driving with a backing soundtrack of Tammy Wynette singing “Stand by your man” and so I thought there would be a lot to consider – and I wasn’t disappointed. This soundtrack was part of the duality that painted the character’s multiple conflicts with his past and his conditioning that he was either running away from, or denying. The female lead was provide by Karen Black’s ‘Rayette’, a working class, perhaps described as ‘trailer trash’ and the ingénue to Nicholson’s macho role. Nicholson is situated at the beginning of the film as a ‘rigger’ on the Californian oil fields, in amongst tough men, manly, hard working, hard drinking, gambling, unreconstructed male. Black’s character ‘needs’ her man, needs him to look after her, to ‘love’ her, to be her ‘man’. This female character is only fully drawn by being with ‘Bobby’, she is childlike, looking for praise, to be stroked both metaphorically and physically, her body is for her ‘man’. Whilst Nicholson’s character is equally at home in sexual intimacy with other women, his independence is more important than fidelity, his horror at being told that he may have fathered a child with the ‘childlike’ Black character is graphically drawn. The controlling, phallocentric imagery of this film does take a turn when Nicholson’s ‘other’ is brought into sharp contrast both in terms of his past life and in his conditioned response to femininity. Robert Eroica Dupea (Bobby) we find hails from Rhode Island, from ‘old money’ from an artistic, musical family, his brother and sister are concert standard musicians, ‘Bobby’ is a classically trained pianist – there is a long link pan which habituates this family to a series of portraits of Chopin and Beethoven – here is the stronger narrative struggle the film deals with – but I’m not looking at this aspect but rather looking at the interaction between his relationship with Black and the intellectual equal the Susan Anspach character who is at the family home where Nicholson returns, studying and engaged to Nicholsons character’s brother. Whilst ‘Bobby’ feels he can do without the clinging ‘Rayette’ he feels emotionally drawn to the Anspach character – she is able to converse at a level that the Nicholson character can identify with; but he still feels the need to seduce her and I wonder whether that is an expression of control or about possession and if so for narrative purpose or for societal purposes.
Chinatown though deals with an altogether darker subject. Incestuous rape. Nicholson plays a private investigator J J Gettes , snared into a family secret via a power play concerning big business, money and control. John Houston plays Noah Cross, the one time owner of all the water to Los Angeles the sale of which has made him very rich – but he has a plan to further develop that wealth and take another firm grip on the future wealth by again controlling the water supply to the wider aspect of the growing Los Angeles surrounds.
Noah Cross has already screwed the inhabitants of the city once, is still screwing the current inhabitants and plans to screw them over for generations to come. And his penis is at the heart of the film. We find out late in the film that Cross, some fifteen years or so previous raped the female lead Evelyn Mulray, played by Faye Dunaway as a fifteen year old, before the story in the film starts. Despite Evelyn being married to Noah Cross’ business partner, in itself a sort of incestuous relationship she self confesses to Gettes to having a series of extra marital relationships, situating her as a woman of low morals, she is bedded by Nicholson’s character and as she struggles to come to terms with any aspect of her life – not difficult in itself to understand given her circumstances – she turns to Gettes. Evelyn Catherine Mulray nee Cross has to pay for her crime of incest with her father, not withstanding she was raped, she also produces a daughter born from the rape, and this offspring is also the ‘cross’ that Mulray has decided to bare as her penance for her intimacy – she describes how she deserted the child but then sought her out and reclaimed her. However this woman is tainted, and her ultimate punishment is to be killed, to be shot at the end of the film as she is fleeing with her daughter after their father confronts them, wanting her daughter to pass her sister, their daughter to their father. The grandfather/father walks his daughter/granddaughter away from the scene of death, the victim remains the victim, the power retains it’s potency, JJ Gettes remains impotent to correct any wrong doings – the size of Cross’ power being so much larger then his.
Both these films can be potentially read as either feminist or anti-feminist, I can see ideas in them that could be interpreted either way. I think that the earlier ‘Five Easy Pieces’ can be more easily slotted into a feminist argument – Rayette only gets pleasure, sexual or otherwise by the good nature of Bobby, he is free not only to have ‘fun’ at home or away, but also to question his life, his position in the world, whereas Black’s character is part formed only until she is inhabited by Bobby’s omnipotence – if he is happy she will be, if he is screwing her she is happy, she will be fulfilled by his sated penis – he is never satisfied, always wanting more than she can ever give. Bobby isn’t satisfied with the Anspach character either, despite her obvious intellectual equivalence. Whereas ‘Chinatown’ is a much more obvious comment on the state on the gender relationships in contemporaneous America, about how the position of the male in society is all powerful, that the female is subordinate and however hard she tries to free her bonds her fate is sealed by the male. No wonder that the brother of Bobby describes their sister’s manner as penis envy – what else would there be to lust after?
So, how would I conclude? I think it is perfectly possible to read either film in a feminist way, and maybe in a post feminist way, but I don’t think that’s the point. I think the point is to be aware of how the filmic structure and the contextual relationships of the era that the work was created and the norms that were culturally acceptable then have combined to present two really fine films but that indicate the prevailing gender relationships at the time of production. I was interested to see how the depiction of the female form was made, both of the female lead roles were fully formed mature adults, not the typical ‘teen-bodied’ silicon implanted bodies. These two women had breasts that seem to ‘hang’ normally, their hips were rounded not angular, I couldn’t count their ribs. I think that speaks another volume, but not one I propose to think about in this post.