Thursday, April 12, 2012

CinemArchetype #11: The WIld Wise Woman

"Within every woman there lives a powerful force, filled with good instincts, passionate creativity, and ageless knowing. She is the Wild Woman, who represents the instinctual nature of women. But she is an endangered species." - Clarissa Pinkola Estes, PHD -Women who Run with the Wolves
There's not a lot of wise women archetypes in the movies - maybe that's because they were all burnt at the stake in the gynocide of the Middle Ages. We've largely forgotten how cool they can be. When they've appeared they've either come on as wizened old crones (hence not a sexual threat), pedantic humanitarians, buzzkill church ladies and/or fantasmagorical spirits. There are real-life icons like Jane Goodall (left), healers (Mother Theresa), TV earth mothers (Oprah), first ladies, scientists, surgeons, pilots, astronauts, and they abound in fairy tales and myth.

But in cinema, few and far between be they.  There is not a single one within the entire Star Wars mythos. They have only minor side roles in Middle Earth and Hogwarts.

 Is it because wise older women aren't cinematic, or do they just 'spook' us into feeling guilty, like we should finally call grandma but the thought of doing it fills with a horror we can't quite admit? I've enjoyed assembling this entire series, but I must say I've been dreading this one. Luckily there's the amazing Clarissa Pinkola Estes, author of Women who Run with the Wolves, a book I once bought for an old girlfriend, who couldn't understand it, gave up after ten pages, and thought I was holding my knowledge of Jungian archetypal symbolism over her head, and I was. She was wise in that sense. The very existence of that book brought on a lot of fights, and maybe even broke us up and for that I am grateful. As was she. As Estes notes:
“Sometimes the one who is running from the Life/Death/Life nature insists on thinking of love as a boon only. Yet love in its fullest form is a series of deaths and rebirths. We let go of one phase, one aspect of love, and enter another. Passion dies and is brought back. Pain is chased away and surfaces another time. To love means to embrace and at the same time to withstand many endings, and many many beginnings- all in the same relationship.”
The wild wise woman has, as Estes notes, the ability to love even death, and failure, and rejection, as well as their opposites. She knows how to let go of her children (or neither bemoan the lack of) without a thought, never resisting heartbreak any more than the sky resists a passing cloud, to take all that comes as rungs on a single winding ladder, to nurture without conditions, to look upon all god's and man's works with the loving nonjudgmental eye with which she'd view her grandchild's ballet recital... Jung wrote of the 'whole self' and discovery of one's true nature as essential to one's ability to be a good parent: "Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent." Guiding the wise wild woman towards the universal life are the archetypes. Mothers, queens, doctors, spirits, and warriors, have lived that life, to the benefit of all us children. 

I found the first Elizabeth to be over-plotted and over-acted, but The Golden Age is just good old-fashioned, even subversive, camp. Blanchett--having dispensed with the origin story and all the 'must rise against patriarchal oppression' historical accuracy motif-mongering--is free to play Elizabeth how she should be played, with drollery and sly spirit. A great moment comes early on when, in the midst of  an ornate procession aglow in serious Bollywood pomp, she breaks her regal deadpan expression to wink at one of her friends in the crowd --the playful "you and me know it's all just a show" + the actual show's effective truth = sooo British, so wise-woman. Neither repressed (even if sexually frustrated) nor repressive (no Inquisition or witch burnings on her watch), she is earth mother and sky father both, able to wear the crown without it hanging too heavy. Two steps ahead of her enemies, free of all fear, she is an iron lady and effervescent as a daisy; nurturer and destroyer; possessed with the ability to wipe out the entire Spanish armada with her virgin power and golden stormy garb; the stormy magic of the channel is due to her fabulous clothes! She becomes what royalty was always supposed to be: a living archetype that points endlessly inwards, outwards, and upwards, all while re-defining fabulousness with an insect reptilian glam.

2. Lillian Gish as Rachel Cooper - Night of the Hunter (1957)
& the Eternal Mother - Intolerance (1916)

What a pair of career bookends! Surely Laughton had Gish's role in the silent multi-narrative film Intolerance in mind when casting her as Rachel Cooper in Hunter. While Intolerance didn't do well at the box office, Griffith's unabashed symbolism (with Gish the archetypal mother rocking the infant of humanity in its cradle) is--if Night of the Hunter (which also flopped) is any indication--ageless, as all true mythic archetypes. Both films offer a clear line between evil 'false prophets' (the child-stealing "moral crusaders" of Intolerance and Mitchum's scary preacher in Hunter) and the true protectors of innocence, who are far less flashy about it.

Gish is perfect in both roles. Vulnerable, a bit frail maybe, but iron tough. Whether enduring betrayal by a no-good man (Way Down East), the dust bowl (The Wind), the French revolution (Orphans of the Storm), or beatings at the hands of her cruel drunk father (Broken Blossoms), she wins us over to her cause through those hardscrabble Yankee eyes

3. Pamela Brown as Catriona Potts - I Know Where I'm Going (1944)

One of my getaway fantasies is to escape out to the wilds of Kiloran and shack up with Catriona in her supremely cozy inn on the hill. Can't you see me, bonding with her troop of wolfhounds and borrowing from her loaded gun rack to go off across the moors hunting the most dangerous of game? Getting my hair wet from the wind and warm foggy damp of the isles and warming it up by the cheer of a good fire as I pour out whiskey for a small, manageable stream of cool visitors, like Roger Livesy? Can you imagine it, lad? 

There we are, the lot of us, staring out at the windy, stormy sea while nodding in and out of woozy romantic black-outs. Such a feeling is, I hear, hardly unique to me, but do they imagine the moors just right? Ah, such a life. I'd do anything for it, except to actually go to Scotland. 

Oh yeah, and Potts is a great character, utterly self-possessed yet needing no support from any man or woman for that matter, yet totally open-hearted--able to go hunt her dinner across the moors and then hold down a cocktail party an hour later, ravishing and natural on both counts. 

4. Julie Andrews - Mary Poppins (1964)
"Blown by the wind with an umbrella, she comes down from the clouds in response to the Banks' advertisement for a nanny. Her personality can be abrasive at times. She is not very sympathetic to the children other than in the Disney movie adaptation. There have been many questions as to whether Mary Poppins is human or not (perhaps an extraterrestrial disguised as a human)--that is for the reader to decide. P.L Travers said that Mary Poppins is 'a pretty young woman, a nurturing mother and a wise old woman, all in one.' Thus, Mary Poppins may be a reference to the "Triple Goddess," a frequently occurring archetype in many world cultures." -- Woo Factor
5. Katharine Hepburn

She's already shown up in this series as devouring mother (Suddenly Last Summer) and anima (Bringing up Baby), but I don't dare leave her out of this. In films like her Spence collaborations or On Golden Pond she proved she could match any big old patriarchal blowhard, stare for stare. The real sizzle in her chemistry with Spencer (who, gifted though he may be as an actor, radiates joy-killing sanctimony that keeps him at arm's length for me) is her refusal to buckle to his patronizing edicts, nor hold a grudge against him for trying, all of which makes her a modern heroine and a wise woman of the first class... Maybe it's true she always played herself, but it was a self that could encompass any character or role, the way the sea encompasses the eternal sailor.

Perhaps this unique character slipped by the censors because having an adult male psychiatrist playing dolly games with a child to exhume their inner traumas would be creepy even for the patriarchal idiots of the censorship dept. But hey, however we get an unencumbered professional female character like this is worth it. A rarity even today (compare her with, say, the doormat sex-starved female shrinks in THE DEPARTED or BASIC INSTINCT) and Nancy Davis pulls it off very well. It's easily her best work, and I say that having seen almost nothing else of hers, for reasons you might well guess. She manages to take over important medical duties from men without them squawking or belittling her, and she even educates older men lawyer friends of the family on the latest breaks in the developing field of child psychology. No man comes along feeling he has to 'put her in her place' with a smug passive aggressive put-down come-on (as endured by Ingrid Bergman in SPELLBOUND), nor does she need to run to her male mentor for guidance (SPELLBOUND) nor does an attractive male patient make her forget her objectivity (SPELLBOUND also) or make her choose between marriage and career because 'no wife of mine is going to work blah blah.' (every movie made between 1934-1941)

While it's great this film exists, it makes Hollywood's long history of sexist inequality that much more glaring by contrast, since it never had its own series, or spawned imitators. And it's a shame, as there's much left to uncover, certainly it puts Nancy Davis in a light that even pro-drug reprobates like myself have no choice but to admire.

7. Gloria Foster - "The Oracle" - The Martrix (1999)

An enticing mix of folksy grandma, 'magical negro' archetype, wild wise woman and high cult priestess, Foster's Oracle is a rather unique character in modern genre cinema, alas. If present at all, older women are the stereotypical self-righteous liberal leaders (ala the new Battlestar Galactica) or earth mothers. The Oracle encompasses both of these, overflows their banks and unites them --a whole matrix unto herself.

Though ostensibly in the Cybil mode (hence the name), she's closer to a kind of Yoda-cum-grandma, shepherding this confused white guy though the apotheoisis he needs. Still unlike Yoda she doesn't want him to hang out in her kitchen and practice. This real wise woman neither inflicts her social programs on others, nor downplays her importance. She delivers mantras (there is no spoon') and colloquial metaphors ("noting her cookies will make Neo feel 'right as rain,' and that certain paradoxes will make him flip his "noodle.") without ever thinking one is more or less important. No male senex/seer would ever be as effortlessly nurturing or ultimately as cheerfully ambivalent. 

8 Alanis Morissettte as God - Dogma (1999)

An avenging apocalypse-toting Kali 2000 mixed with a goofy Harpo Marxist sprite, Alanis's God is one of the few redeeming features of Kevin Smith's overwritten, under-directed, under-edited, tediously foul-mouthed ode to the pantheon of Catholic angels. Electrifying and 'in the moment' she proves you can be wise and wild and beyond morality without sacrificing playfulness. As Television without Pity notes, Morissette-God:
 "Makes angels cry and stoned slackers stop swearing with the sheer force of her presence; issues screams that are literally earthshaking and explosive; resurrects the dead and makes ‘em pregnant; can do a pretty good handstand."
9. Cecil Cunningham as Aunt Patsy - The Awful Truth (1937) 
and Maude Euburne as Ma Pettingille - Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)

Nowadays this role is occupied by the gay next-cubicle office mate, or a college buddy working in a sports bar (you know -the person you turn to when you're suddenly single). You crash on their couch and they convince you to either call or not call her or him. They're single and doing whatever the fuck they want, sharp as tacks. They know just about all there is to know about men, women, and the idiots they make of themselves when they fall over each other. Never, however, do they try to meddle in the foolish strivings of the more romantic generations, except as a combination sage counsel, shoulder to cry on, and smart aleck observer / eye roller. 

They are the one type of old person I'd be proud to grow into...the sage Buddha-meets-Algonquin caustic of classic screwball comedy.

She's a good witch, despite her crooked nose (putting to rest the libelous claim of Glenda in OZ that "only bad witches are ugly"), and I love the casual way she asks the stranger at her door "Are you from this era or from a time yet to be?" as if hypnotists from the future like himself were not uncommon in her bizarre Middle Ages dimension. Neumann was a great find for Corman; she's to the putty nose and chin born, but with a genuine ease, wisdom and spry sweetness that makes her Meg equally reassuring and spooky.

11. Edit Barrett as Mrs. Rand - I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

Warm-hearted and smart, Mrs. Rand uses voodoo to sugar-coat real medicine and common motherly sense to ground the entire island of San Sebastian. She may have used voodoo to kill the mind of hated daughter-in-la Jessica (or did she? In Lewton's never-far-from-reality dream world, it's impossible to tell) but it's her warm spirit that anchors Frances Dee's quite elegant performance as Betsy. "You could do it, Betsy," notes Wes in regards to finishing the job. "You have the drugs!"

12. Bea Richards as Baby Suggs - Beloved (1998)

Tak Fujimoto's cinematography captures the purple brilliance of black skin at twilight with precise poetry, but director Jonathan Demme couldn't really find the right dramatic air to make Beloved breathe as something other than a half-this, not-quite that + maybe that kind of idea humorless downer hodge podge. Still, it's a wealth of mythopoetic realism: old plantation horror stories, ghosts, folktales, superstition, and religion all bleed into the mundane muddy life of an escape slave woman haunted by the past. 

And then there's Bea Richards' awesome Suggs, the backwoods earth mother / preacher. Bea Richards alone seems to grasp the folksy deconstruction at work and morphs herself into the humble epitome of a wild wise woman in a way that's genuinely compelling. The end has her conducting a big gathering in the woods where she tells the congregation to love their hands, to see and take notice of their hands and all their power and beauty. I think of that scene a lot when I'm stressed out in the grocery store... just keep thinking of Baby Suggs telling me to look at my hands, I'm grounded.

13. Maria Ouspenskaya - The Wolfman (1941)
Marlene Dietrich -Touch of Evil (1959)

Unfortunately gypsies have had a hard time throughout history--first Middle Age witch hunters and then the Nazis tried to wipe them out. But as archetypes they survive and are without parallel or antecedent, especially as fortune telling, whip-cracking, Esmeralda-pimping relics of a deeper connection to arcane truths Christianity has tried for thousands of years to eradicate. 

Acting teacher and all-around legend Ouspenskaya gave the role of Wolfman's advisor a lot of sympathy, as Theron Neel notes:
Ouspenskaya’s main purpose is to act mysterious and deliver ominous expository dialogue to let the audience—and Lon Chaney Jr.’s Lawrence Talbot—know what’s going to happen. This she does wonderfully, but she does oh so much more. As the mother of the doomed Bela (played by Bela Lugosi), she’s oddly touching as a loving parent who has somehow accepted the fact that her son is damned. Ouspenskaya treated the character of Maleva as seriously as any other she’d played. (Portraits in Horror)
Dietrich's gypsy woman is no slouch either, but a whole different sort, more adult and ennui-ridden, more stand-offish yet just as 'oddly touching' and compassionate in her cold way; Ouspenskaya doesn't have to recall years of sleeping with Larry Talbot for money while he hangs out at her place guzzling a case of whiskey listening to an old pianola but the effect is the same. Dietrich's character understands she might be the closest relationship he has, Pete aside (and wife dead), and she gets just how sad that is. She doesn't quite care, but doesn't not care either. She still comes running out of her salon at the sound of gunfire, in a last minute gesture of compassion for her fallen ex-John, noting "he was some kind of a man." Up until then she seldom speaks without a cigarillo in her mouth; can turn questions like "what can I offer you?" into hollow ghost slaps; is usually counting money, doing the accounts; stacking tarot cards, and telling Hank his future is "all used up" without even having to turn one over. Like Ouspenskaya's gypsy she is the earth mother to a falling shadow self (both Hank and Maleva's son Bela are in the Shadow section of this series). In their ways, like Baby Suggs, an 'already paid my suffering dues' outcast, they represent the wellspring of nonjudgmental forgiveness that comes from the wise woman archetype. Western civilization has tried so hard to cement their earth power over (with by-the-book blind men like Vargas and blank-slate sex objects like his wife Susan) its made them all the more open somehow. In the twilit world of the gypsy seer, even monsters can find motherly love. Too bad it's the gypsies that are always first on any culture's kill list, right after the monsters, of course, and women in general.

14. Elizabeth Taylor (gone gray) - Giant (1956)

(Taylor's) character in Giant clashes with her newfound homeland Texas' narrow-minded patriarchal ways, and everyone of the old guard just has to put up with it. None of their patronizing crap works, even when she's way out of line they can't rope her in. So they surrender, like aggressive dogs surrendering to Cesar Milan in the Dog Whisperer. Like said dogs, these Texans realize they love her for standing up to them without holding a grudge about it. She never turns sour and sulky over not getting her way, and in the process she becomes the social mother conscience for all of Rich Oil Texas. She creates a new respect and admiration for the voice of dissent. It's okay to walk away having lost a fight with Liz Taylor. She'll always let you try again. She might even let you think you won once in awhile, or at least reached a draw. She knows how to back off from the male ego before doing any permanent damage. She'll let you heal and then--as if by magic--that thing you were so obstinate about seems to have shrunk in import. She somehow has had her way, and you  keep your pride.  (see: Suddenly Last Summer)

PS 12/22: I've seen Giant several times since I wrote the above and come to really love and understand its genius. Unlike, say, Scarlett O'Hara who never really matures until the end (with Rhett a little too perfect), we watch both her and Rock grow as people as they tussle over all the relevant issues of age, race, tradition and gender. It's a series of scenes where they argue and put their foots down and then nothing ever seems to be resolved, but it is. There's no scene of either ever winning the argument, just the evolution of the narrative happening and changing it all as it does them, until there's Mexican blood in the family, and Rock's racism is gone, he's now a champion of equality, and being knocked into a salad bowl is somehow his knighting in the royal gaze of our wise woman queen. 

15. Kim Hunter as Zira - Planet of the Apes (1968)

When you're captured by oppressive apes or aliens you always hope some nurturing earth mother scientist will come along and declare you an endangered species in need of protection. Zira's compassion for Heston-kind provides the sense that perhaps, somehow, things may turn out all right for human-ape relations. In the sequels she ends up giving birth to her own species, thanks to traveling back into the past, the ultimate in matriarchal self-creation.
16: Lorraine Bracco as Dolores Del Ruby - Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993)

Few people have seen this disaster from beginning to end, but I caught a whole middle stretch on IFC awhile ago while half-watching, half-writing something else, so got to see Dolores Del Ruby conducting peyote rituals and Bracco is awesome, dropping truth bombs like "playfulness ceases to have a serious purpose when it takes itself too seriously." What? On the page that kind of drivel is mad pretentious, a sign of a verbose hippy dipshit author in love with his own voice (in case you can't tell, I find Tom Robbins' writing insufferable, he's the Jimmy Buffet of Thomas Pynchons), and the movie is somehow worse. But not Bracco, she stands above. I still wish there could be an alternate cut of Blake Edward's Switch where Bracco goes all-the-way with Ellen Barkin (who's a straight male reincarnated). Oh Bracco --will she ever get the credit she's due?

Irregardless, matriarchs of the psychedelic bent are so far between I have to at least mention her as extra credit. Okay, mother?


  1. I'd pay hellish good money to see the look on the coroner's face when, after all those nuns and governesses, it's revealed that Ms. Andrews was really a guy.

  2. Not to self-promote here (I hate that), but when writing my "Nothing Men" novel I tried to tap into that wise woman spirit for one of my main characters ... but at the same time turning her into something totally despicable. Various reader reaction has told me mission accomplished, as it is often someone's favorite character in the entire book even though she is horrible. The reason you may not see more of it on screen is because it is hard to pull off without it coming across as ridiculous. I balanced a line in my novel, and there were times I thought I may have crossed it. It was not easy, and I can't imagine any writer wants to flub that type of character.

  3. Anonymous24 July, 2012

    I've got to tell you that your blog is one of my all time favorites! It's brilliant and engaging, and I'm always looking forward to seeing what you'll write about next! You've always got your finger on the pulse of coolness!

    Your fan,


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