Posts tagged Feminist film theory

OSCAR MONTH: BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY 1934 – CLEOPATRA

“I’m no longer a queen. I’m a woman.”

These are a supplicant’s words, but Cleopatra is no supplicant. She tells Mark Antony he is a “god come to life,” but Antony is only a man, a mortal, a drunk. Rome is just out of his reach, but Cleopatra understands there are some things that can be taken in the masculine way, through force, and there are some things that must be gently plied, with platitudes, with spectacle, with sex.
Some things can’t be taken at all.
Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra boils the epic story of Roman and Egyptian politics down to its foundation, cramming the essence of two dense Shakespeare plays into a two-hour movie. From the film’s first striking frame, a nude woman offering up incense, it’s very clear what it is about the titular queen that interests DeMille, though it has little to do with exploitation. Claudette Colbert, appearing in three of 1934’s Best Picture nominees (including It Happened One Night, the film that took home the prize and won Colbert her only Best Actress trophy) was fast becoming one of the biggest names in Hollywood, and her portrayal of the Egyptian queen crackles with a furious, multifaceted sexual energy that not even the iconic Elizabeth Taylor could touch. Colbert’s Cleopatra is as charming as she is manipulative, as seductive as she is powerful, and she is very powerful.
Cinematographer Victor Milner burns Colbert’s passion into every shot, allowing her presence to linger long after she’s off camera, not only in the reaction shots of her co-stars, and the grandeur of DeMille’s set pieces, but in the minds of the film’s audience, who like Caesar and Antony, find themselves beguiled by such a sexually rapacious display. The Roman senate chastises its leaders for loving Cleopatra, but there is no love here. There is only the intricate web of gender dynamics, and the Roman fear of Cleopatra’s sex and the womanhood it represents.
DeMille and Milner transform Cleopatra’s suggestive shoulder shrugs and pleading glances into a language of machination, as she glides from the floor to the bed to an eagle adorned lectica parading through the Roman streets. Still, it isn’t until Cleopatra’s convoluted seduction of Mark Antony (a forgettable Henry Wilcoxon), which, her having refused to meet Antony on Roman land, takes place aboard her ship, that the nuance of the queen’s character truly shines. Antony, barreling in with two Great Danes, is met not by fierce male guards, but by placating women, who obscure his powerful body with fans and incense. The next shot is a wide one, Cleopatra’s throne, a silk-lined sofa reminiscent of a Victorian fainting couch, under an opulent burst of arched feathers, soft, open, vaginal. Antony has witnessed the strength of femininity, and after a night of spectacular dance, lusty advances, and the Antonian Achilles’ heel of flowing vino, it is he who becomes the queen’s supplicant.
The scene is Victor Milner’s centerpiece and each feat of visual extravagance is more stunning than the last. Female dancers in slinky cat costumes terrify Antony’s Danes, while the great Roman ruler stuffs his face and laughs. The flaming hoops through which the dancers jump offer more vaginal imagery, and Cleopatra’s show of “clam” catching, netted women holding jewel filled clams pulled up from the river, promise the sort of conquest on which Antony prides himself. However, Cleopatra’s game is a meticulous long con, and Antony can conquer Egypt no more than the land can conquer water.
The final shot of the scene is a wondrously sensual slow zoom back through the interior of the ship as Cleopatra’s wooing of Antony tends toward its natural consummation on her, now hidden, sofa. Dancers, musicians, and incense holders pay tribute to their queen, as flower petals flitter playfully to the floor, and Victor Milner’s camera captures a microcosm of Egyptian power in the complex layering of DeMille’s choreographed production. The zoom culminates among the ship’s dozens of galley slaves, their oars cranking in unison in epic waves of masculine propulsion, but they are her men, and they will do what she bids. They all will.

OSCAR MONTH: BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY 1934 – CLEOPATRA



“I’m no longer a queen. I’m a woman.”



These are a supplicant’s words, but Cleopatra is no supplicant. She tells Mark Antony he is a “god come to life,” but Antony is only a man, a mortal, a drunk. Rome is just out of his reach, but Cleopatra understands there are some things that can be taken in the masculine way, through force, and there are some things that must be gently plied, with platitudes, with spectacle, with sex.

Some things can’t be taken at all.

Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra boils the epic story of Roman and Egyptian politics down to its foundation, cramming the essence of two dense Shakespeare plays into a two-hour movie. From the film’s first striking frame, a nude woman offering up incense, it’s very clear what it is about the titular queen that interests DeMille, though it has little to do with exploitation. Claudette Colbert, appearing in three of 1934’s Best Picture nominees (including It Happened One Night, the film that took home the prize and won Colbert her only Best Actress trophy) was fast becoming one of the biggest names in Hollywood, and her portrayal of the Egyptian queen crackles with a furious, multifaceted sexual energy that not even the iconic Elizabeth Taylor could touch. Colbert’s Cleopatra is as charming as she is manipulative, as seductive as she is powerful, and she is very powerful.

Cinematographer Victor Milner burns Colbert’s passion into every shot, allowing her presence to linger long after she’s off camera, not only in the reaction shots of her co-stars, and the grandeur of DeMille’s set pieces, but in the minds of the film’s audience, who like Caesar and Antony, find themselves beguiled by such a sexually rapacious display. The Roman senate chastises its leaders for loving Cleopatra, but there is no love here. There is only the intricate web of gender dynamics, and the Roman fear of Cleopatra’s sex and the womanhood it represents.

DeMille and Milner transform Cleopatra’s suggestive shoulder shrugs and pleading glances into a language of machination, as she glides from the floor to the bed to an eagle adorned lectica parading through the Roman streets. Still, it isn’t until Cleopatra’s convoluted seduction of Mark Antony (a forgettable Henry Wilcoxon), which, her having refused to meet Antony on Roman land, takes place aboard her ship, that the nuance of the queen’s character truly shines. Antony, barreling in with two Great Danes, is met not by fierce male guards, but by placating women, who obscure his powerful body with fans and incense. The next shot is a wide one, Cleopatra’s throne, a silk-lined sofa reminiscent of a Victorian fainting couch, under an opulent burst of arched feathers, soft, open, vaginal. Antony has witnessed the strength of femininity, and after a night of spectacular dance, lusty advances, and the Antonian Achilles’ heel of flowing vino, it is he who becomes the queen’s supplicant.

The scene is Victor Milner’s centerpiece and each feat of visual extravagance is more stunning than the last. Female dancers in slinky cat costumes terrify Antony’s Danes, while the great Roman ruler stuffs his face and laughs. The flaming hoops through which the dancers jump offer more vaginal imagery, and Cleopatra’s show of “clam” catching, netted women holding jewel filled clams pulled up from the river, promise the sort of conquest on which Antony prides himself. However, Cleopatra’s game is a meticulous long con, and Antony can conquer Egypt no more than the land can conquer water.

The final shot of the scene is a wondrously sensual slow zoom back through the interior of the ship as Cleopatra’s wooing of Antony tends toward its natural consummation on her, now hidden, sofa. Dancers, musicians, and incense holders pay tribute to their queen, as flower petals flitter playfully to the floor, and Victor Milner’s camera captures a microcosm of Egyptian power in the complex layering of DeMille’s choreographed production. The zoom culminates among the ship’s dozens of galley slaves, their oars cranking in unison in epic waves of masculine propulsion, but they are her men, and they will do what she bids. They all will.

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NOIR WEEK

Day Two: The Hays Code, Femme Fatales, and Bette Davis’ Scarlet Letter

The United States, finally breaking its non-interventionism policy and deploying troops in World War II, now faced another problem, how to fill the thousands of employment positions abandoned by men during their enlistment.  “Do the job he left behind,” the posters read, and women across America stepped into factory overalls to work.
This, of course, did little to preserve the delicate, patriarchal power paradigm so intricate to the American way of life.  Women were to stay at home, and raise families, and be faithful, and stand very still on their pedestals.  They were not to be parading about in trousers, making money, and keeping the great Capitalist machine running, while their husbands and boyfriends ate bullets and shrapnel on Japanese beaches.  What would happen when the men came home?  Would they still be men?
Enter William Wyler’s The Letter, based on the W. Somerset Maugham play of the same name from the 1920s, another time when feminist ideals threatened the status quo of masculine agency.  The film’s narrative is taken from a real life scandal in which the wife of a British colonial headmaster shot a male friend dead.  “Was sex involved?” an all-male, probably sex-starved jury demanded to know.
Wyler’s film contains two very significant changes in the case.  The first, the addition of the titular letter, as the evidence of adultery that could make-or-break the murder trial, and the second, a dark ending, in which the murderess in question, Bette Davis’ femme fatale, Leslie Crosbie, is killed.  The letter itself is an invention of Maugham, but Crosbie’s death is an element exclusive to the 1940 film, and for this, The Hays Code can be thanked.
The Motion Picture Production Code (The Hays Code), active from the 1930s through the 1960s, enforced what the United States public could and could not see on the silver screen.  Under the Hays Code, murder and adultery could not go unpunished.  Therefore, The Letter’s bleak ending, much more disturbing than the original, is the result of a moral watchdog meant to keep this sort of bleakness out of the cinema in the first place.  Crosbie kills a man, and she must be killed for it, simple as that.  Or, maybe the censors were just weary of the implied ambiguity of Crosbie’ crime, and that someone might connect Crosbie’s stifling marriage with the dovetailing epilogue of British Colonialism that serves as a backdrop to the picture.  Perhaps the censors were afraid the adulteress was in the right.
On screen, Bette Davis embodied a new screen role for women of the 1940s.  The femme fatale, cunning, sexually aggressive, and deadly, personified growing masculine fears of a degenerative gender structure, and became a well-known trope of the film noir genre.  No longer would women play merely love interests, or damsels in distress, but intelligent antagonists who could out-quip, and outgun their male counterparts.  But were these roles breaking the mold, or just enforcing the sexual stereotypes that had been used to persecute women since American colonialism?   Either way, the tide was shifting.  Overseas, posters warning of venereal diseases proclaimed that “loose women” could actually kill a man, while back home, wives and girlfriends found keeping their promises of fidelity to a soldier they might never see again was a concept they couldn’t get behind.  Oh, and they weren’t leaving the workforce, or Sunset Blvd, any time soon.

NOIR WEEK


Day Two: The Hays Code, Femme Fatales, and Bette Davis’ Scarlet Letter


The United States, finally breaking its non-interventionism policy and deploying troops in World War II, now faced another problem, how to fill the thousands of employment positions abandoned by men during their enlistment.  “Do the job he left behind,” the posters read, and women across America stepped into factory overalls to work.

This, of course, did little to preserve the delicate, patriarchal power paradigm so intricate to the American way of life.  Women were to stay at home, and raise families, and be faithful, and stand very still on their pedestals.  They were not to be parading about in trousers, making money, and keeping the great Capitalist machine running, while their husbands and boyfriends ate bullets and shrapnel on Japanese beaches.  What would happen when the men came home?  Would they still be men?

Enter William Wyler’s The Letter, based on the W. Somerset Maugham play of the same name from the 1920s, another time when feminist ideals threatened the status quo of masculine agency.  The film’s narrative is taken from a real life scandal in which the wife of a British colonial headmaster shot a male friend dead.  “Was sex involved?” an all-male, probably sex-starved jury demanded to know.

Wyler’s film contains two very significant changes in the case.  The first, the addition of the titular letter, as the evidence of adultery that could make-or-break the murder trial, and the second, a dark ending, in which the murderess in question, Bette Davis’ femme fatale, Leslie Crosbie, is killed.  The letter itself is an invention of Maugham, but Crosbie’s death is an element exclusive to the 1940 film, and for this, The Hays Code can be thanked.

The Motion Picture Production Code (The Hays Code), active from the 1930s through the 1960s, enforced what the United States public could and could not see on the silver screen.  Under the Hays Code, murder and adultery could not go unpunished.  Therefore, The Letter’s bleak ending, much more disturbing than the original, is the result of a moral watchdog meant to keep this sort of bleakness out of the cinema in the first place.  Crosbie kills a man, and she must be killed for it, simple as that.  Or, maybe the censors were just weary of the implied ambiguity of Crosbie’ crime, and that someone might connect Crosbie’s stifling marriage with the dovetailing epilogue of British Colonialism that serves as a backdrop to the picture.  Perhaps the censors were afraid the adulteress was in the right.

On screen, Bette Davis embodied a new screen role for women of the 1940s.  The femme fatale, cunning, sexually aggressive, and deadly, personified growing masculine fears of a degenerative gender structure, and became a well-known trope of the film noir genre.  No longer would women play merely love interests, or damsels in distress, but intelligent antagonists who could out-quip, and outgun their male counterparts.  But were these roles breaking the mold, or just enforcing the sexual stereotypes that had been used to persecute women since American colonialism?   Either way, the tide was shifting.  Overseas, posters warning of venereal diseases proclaimed that “loose women” could actually kill a man, while back home, wives and girlfriends found keeping their promises of fidelity to a soldier they might never see again was a concept they couldn’t get behind.  Oh, and they weren’t leaving the workforce, or Sunset Blvd, any time soon.

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The Innocents (1961, Jack Clayton; Cinematographer: Freddie Francis)

SPOILERS

There are two layers of genre filmmaking at the surface of Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, each pushing at the seams of the other, testing the other’s boundaries and conventions.  The first layer is horror, a gothic horror, in which spirits clatter and clang about empty hallways and disappear into locked rooms.  The second genre is erotica, not the heady Freudian conflict that serves as the film’s meat and potatoes, but classic, bodice-ripping erotica of the repressed virgin variety.  In this, The Innocents has total control over its protagonist, Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr, hamming it up something wicked).  The horror turns Giddens’ mind against her body, and the erotica turns the potential of her body against her mind.
The tension of each genre rests in the unrelenting potential for attack, and the willingness of the protagonist to give herself up to her attacker.  The imagery of the bodice-ripper is disturbingly violent, suggesting rape and ravishment fantasies stemming from both Victorian suffocation of the garment in question and the askew sexual politics of a male-run publishing industry.  The Innocents’ juxtaposition of sex and death (of innocence), though pedestrian even for horror films of the time, is given clout through its coincidence with the swelling 1960s Feminist movement, a tension all its own, that asked “when the release comes, who will give in to whom?”  Were men afraid there would be a total loss of power, or, perhaps more horrifying to them, did they secretly lust for it?
The film’s most famous moments, two sensual kisses between Giddens and her young, male ward, Miles (Martin Stephens), the second, a sort of post-mortem tribute to Giddens’ sexual awakening, revel openly in their own transgressions.  The script, a collaboration of Truman Capote, John Mortimer, and original playwright, William Archibald, is anchored by these kisses, the only displays of sexuality throughout the whole arc, and its screenwriters utilize them to draw a line in the sand for the viewer to cross.  Is the kiss a catharsis, delivering Giddens from her societally imposed chastity, or is it a Pandora’s Box of horror, which, once opened, will spiral virtue into decadent entropy?   If the answer is the former, then Giddens’ anxieties are, in fact, justified, and her assailants are very real, indeed.  If the audience is against Giddens, then the kiss is merely a perversion from which to recoil, and Giddens’ is merely imagining her dilemma, hysterical, a term the roots of which lie in the demonization of female sexuality.   The cure for hysteria?  Physician induced orgasm - a release of unbearable tension.

The Innocents (1961, Jack Clayton; Cinematographer: Freddie Francis)


SPOILERS


There are two layers of genre filmmaking at the surface of Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, each pushing at the seams of the other, testing the other’s boundaries and conventions.  The first layer is horror, a gothic horror, in which spirits clatter and clang about empty hallways and disappear into locked rooms.  The second genre is erotica, not the heady Freudian conflict that serves as the film’s meat and potatoes, but classic, bodice-ripping erotica of the repressed virgin variety.  In this, The Innocents has total control over its protagonist, Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr, hamming it up something wicked).  The horror turns Giddens’ mind against her body, and the erotica turns the potential of her body against her mind.

The tension of each genre rests in the unrelenting potential for attack, and the willingness of the protagonist to give herself up to her attacker.  The imagery of the bodice-ripper is disturbingly violent, suggesting rape and ravishment fantasies stemming from both Victorian suffocation of the garment in question and the askew sexual politics of a male-run publishing industry.  The Innocents’ juxtaposition of sex and death (of innocence), though pedestrian even for horror films of the time, is given clout through its coincidence with the swelling 1960s Feminist movement, a tension all its own, that asked “when the release comes, who will give in to whom?”  Were men afraid there would be a total loss of power, or, perhaps more horrifying to them, did they secretly lust for it?

The film’s most famous moments, two sensual kisses between Giddens and her young, male ward, Miles (Martin Stephens), the second, a sort of post-mortem tribute to Giddens’ sexual awakening, revel openly in their own transgressions.  The script, a collaboration of Truman Capote, John Mortimer, and original playwright, William Archibald, is anchored by these kisses, the only displays of sexuality throughout the whole arc, and its screenwriters utilize them to draw a line in the sand for the viewer to cross.  Is the kiss a catharsis, delivering Giddens from her societally imposed chastity, or is it a Pandora’s Box of horror, which, once opened, will spiral virtue into decadent entropy?   If the answer is the former, then Giddens’ anxieties are, in fact, justified, and her assailants are very real, indeed.  If the audience is against Giddens, then the kiss is merely a perversion from which to recoil, and Giddens’ is merely imagining her dilemma, hysterical, a term the roots of which lie in the demonization of female sexuality.   The cure for hysteria?  Physician induced orgasm - a release of unbearable tension.

2 notes